Special to Reminder Publications
Symphony Hall, Springfield
A song inspired by the tragic 1959 death of rock 'n' roll pioneers, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, "American Pie," propelled Don McLean to the top of the pop charts in November 1971. Released as a double A-sided single, and subsequently included in a list of the 365 songs of the century compiled by the Recording Industry Association, the tune's success continues to drive the career of the New Rochelle, N.Y. -born singer, songwriter/interpreter.
"I've always been popular somewhere on Earth," said McLean, who performs at Springfield's Symphony Hall on March 31, by telephone. "I've found myself in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Manila and everyone following the music. It's been quite an odyssey."
Initially influenced by American folk music, McLean, 61, has taken a much broader view of music since his earliest recordings.
"I love folk music," he said, "and I certainly started out emulating Josh White and Pete Seeger. But, musically, I've had many different ideas that didn't go along with that particular type of music. If it was a rock 'n' roll song, I made a rock 'n' roll record. If it was a pop tune, I didn't use acoustic guitar and upright bass. I used 40 strings. If you go and listen to the albums, each song was taken to the limit for what it was supposed to be."
Suffering from asthma as a child, McLean found a refuge in music. He spent hours listening to and singing along with his father's 78 rpm recordings. Impressed by his singing, a sister financed opera lessons when he was 12 years old.
"I didn't know what I was doing," he recalled. "I was just a little kid, bouncing around. But, I could sing and the idea, in those days, was that, if you could sing, you'd go to an opera teacher. She taught me how to support the tone of my voice and to protect my vocal cords from abuse."
From the onset, McLean took a clear approach to singing. "I wanted to sing in a certain way," he said, "with a column of air rather than screaming from my throat. I wanted to have tone and be able to sing melodies. I'm half-Italian. It was something in my blood."
From the moment that he first picked up a guitar, at the age of 15, the instrument mesmerized McLean. "It allowed me to play (songs by) Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Weavers or anyone else," he remembered.
While he began playing guitar in the folk tradition, McLean soon took things a step further. "The chords (used by folk musicians) were very limited," he said. "I began to learn more passing chords and sophisticated chord changes and coupled them with a lot of styles from folk guitar thing flat picking, finger picking and Travis picking."
After listening to "Live At Carnegie Hall," the 1960 groundbreaking album by folksinging group, the Weavers, McLean tracked down one of their members, Erik Darling. "[Darling] was a wonderful guitar player," he recalled, "and a marvelous group singer. He invited me to come to his apartment when I was 16. We'd play guitars and I'd learn things from him about chord changes, tone and setting up the instrument."
As McLean progressed instrumentally, Darling invited him to participate in his first recording sessions. "It gave me confidence," he said. "It made realize that, somebody that was with a group that I admired enormously thought that I was good enough to work with. Each step along the way was part of the validation process."
Working with Darling put McLean under the wing of musician manager Harold Leventhal.
"He managed the Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly legacy," he said, "and was the solid rock of folk music. He was brilliant at packaging and making his artists seem a cut above others. He was a legend builder. He was good at raising money and putting on concerts. He knew how to do everything."
Spurning an invitation to join Darling's band, McLean returned to college to study business administration. Enrolling at Villanova University, Penn., where he befriended Jim Croce, he graduated with a Bachelors degree, from Iona College, in his hometown of New Rochelle, in 1968.
Determined to become a performer, McLean turned down a scholarship to Columbia University and accepted a resident artist position at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. folk club, Cafe Lena. He traveled, during the summer of 1968, as a Hudson River troubadour for the New York Council of the Arts. A year later, he joined Pete Seeger on the first crew of the Hudson River sloop, the Clearwater.
McLean's days as a folk musician, however, were soon over. Signed by the prestigious William Morris Agency, he found himself touring around the United States opening shows for rock bands including Ten Wheel Drive, James Gang and Blood, Sweat and Tears. "I used to open shows for Steppenwolf," he said. "I was right in the middle of the rock 'n' roll scene."
While his debut 1969 album, "Tapestry," was a minor hit, nothing prepared him for the phenomenon of "American Pie," the title track of his sophomore effort. "I have no idea (why it was such a hit)," he said. "It was a great record but it was a very long song. It did many, many, things at once. The song is a microcosm for how I think and who I am. I touched a lot of bases at once."
"American Pie" was followed by graceful, finger-picked ode to painter Vincent Van Gogh "Vincent" that charted in the twelfth slot in the United States and reached number one in the UK, in March 1972, and its flip side, "Castles In The Air", which was nearly as successful. He again reached the pop charts with "Dreidel," a year later, and his cover of the R&B ballad, "Killing Me Softly With His Song," which had been a duo hit for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, in 1973.
After releasing more than four dozen albums and compilations, McLean claims that a recently completed album, "Addicted To Black," yet to be released, will be his final recording of his own songs.
"It's time to stop doing it," he claimed. "I've said everything that I've had to say. I'd prefer to go out as a performer for as long as I'm able to do it."