Don McLean was born on October 2, 1945, in New Rochelle, New York, to Elizabeth and Donald McLean. By the age of five he had developed an interest in all forms of music and would spend hours listening to the radio and records that were around the house. Childhood asthma meant that Don missed long periods of school and while he slipped back in his studies, his love of music was allowed to flourish. He would often perform shows for family and friends.
As a teenager, he purchased his first guitar (a Harmony F Hole with a sunburst finish) from the House of Music in New Rochelle and took voice lessons paid for by his sister. These lessons combined with running, walking, and swimming, helped Don to develop breath control, which would later allow him to sing long, continuous phrases, in songs such as “Crying”, without taking a breath. The exercise also meant his asthma improved.
In 1961, Don took his only vacation with his father – a trip to Washington D.C. Sadly, a few months later his father died. Don was just 15 years old.
By this time, Don’s musical focus was on folk music thanks, in part, to The Weavers landmark 1955 recording “Live at Carnegie Hall”. Don was determined to become a professional musician and singer and, as a 16-year-old, he was already making contacts in the business. After getting his home number from the telephone directory, Don phoned Fred Hellerman and later, Erik Darling. Don and Erik became friends and Don visited his apartment in New York.
Through Erik Darling, Don recorded his first studio sessions with Lisa Kindred and was invited to join a group with Darling and the other members of the Rooftop Singers. However, even at that time, Don saw himself as a troubadour and turned down the offer.
While at Villanova University in 1963 (he stayed for just four months), Don met and became friends with Jim Croce and President Kennedy was assassinated.
After leaving Villanova, Don was managed by Harold Leventhal Management. This started a six-year period during which time Don performed at venues like The Bitter End and Gaslight Café in New York, the Newport Folk Festival, The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., The Main Point in Philadelphia, the Troubadour and Ash Grove in Los Angeles and over forty colleges throughout New York and New England. He appeared alongside artists like Herbie Mann, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, Melanie, Steppenwolf, Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, Josh White, Ten Wheel Drive, The James Gang and others.
Don also found time to attend night school at Iona College and, in 1968, graduated with a Bachelors degree in Business Administration but turned down a prestigious scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School.
While singing at The Caffe Lena, the New York State Council for the Arts invited Don to become their Hudson River Troubadour. He accepted and spent the summer traveling from town to town in the Hudson Valley, giving talks about the environment and singing songs for whoever would turn up to listen.
A year later, Don was a member of the first crew of the Sloop Clearwater. With Pete Seeger, they travelled the Atlantic seaboard giving concerts at each port and being featured in the news wherever they went.
In 1969, Don recorded his first album, “Tapestry”, in Berkeley, CA. The student riots were going on outside the studio door as Don was singing “And I Love You So” inside. The album was first released by Mediarts and attracted good reviews and achieved some commercial success. It succeeded in transforming Don McLean from an unknown to an underground sensation. FM radio loved the “Tapestry” album and very quickly, Don became a headliner in nightclubs and colleges across the country.
The transition to international stardom began in 1971 with the release of “American Pie”. “American Pie” was recorded on 26th May 1971 and a month later received its first radio airplay on New York’s WNEW-FM and WPLJ-FM to mark the closing of The Fillmore East, the historic rock & roll concert venue.
Thirty years later, “American Pie” was voted number 5 in a poll of the 365 “Songs of the Century” compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The top five were:
“Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland
“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
“This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
“Respect” by Aretha Franklin;
and “American Pie” by Don McLean.
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