Don McLean Biography

Singer, Songwriter (1945–)
Don McLean is an American singer and songwriter best known for his epic 1971 hit song, ‘American Pie.’

Who Is Don McLean?

Folk rock singer-songwriter Donald McLean III was born on October 2, 1945 to Elizabeth (Bucci) and Donald McLean Jr. in New Rochelle, New York. A fixture in the folk clubs in and around New York City during the mid-'60s, McLean managed to build up a small following. His 1971 album, featuring the eight-and-a-half minute long title track, “American Pie” became a No. 1 hit and, along with Its follow-up single, "Vincent," drove the album to the top of the charts and propelled McLean to stardom. Though his later work has never eclipsed those now classic songs, the singer-songwriter has amassed more than 40 gold and platinum records during his long career.

Don McLean Photo

Don McLean during 35th Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards at Marriott Marquis in New York, 2004.

Net Worth

As of 2017, Don McLean has an estimated net worth of $3.5 million.

‘American Pie’ 

McLean recorded “American Pie” on May 26, 1971 and a month later, it received its first radio airplay on New York’s WNEW-FM and WPLJ-FM to mark the closing of The Fillmore East, the famous New York concert hall. Issued as a double A-side single in November 1971, the song catapulted McLean to international stardom. It spent four weeks at No. 1 and became one of the most well-known rock songs in history. Clocking in at eight minutes and 36 seconds, it is the longest song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100 and it became an anthem for an entire generation — who memorized every line.

Fascinated by the mysterious lyrics with their cryptic references to 50s innocence, the turbulent 60s, and 70s disillusion, fans wanted to know: Who was Miss American Pie? Who was the jester who sang for the king and queen? And what really was revealed "the day the music died"?

But apart from acknowledging that "the day the music died" refers to the plane crash that resulted in the untimely death on February 3, 1959, of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, McLean was famously tight-lipped about the lyrics. That is, until he decided to say, “bye, bye” to his original manuscript and notes, saying, “The writing and the lyrics will divulge everything there is to divulge." On April 7, 2015, 16 pages of handwritten notes were sold for $1.2 million at Christie's in New York to an anonymous bidder.

'Vincent (Starry Starry Night)'

Though it lacks the epic stature of “American Pie,” McLean’s melancholic song, “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” an ode to Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, may well be just as beloved. Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum plays the song for visitors every day and its sheet music shares space in a time capsule that holds some of the artist’s possessions.

“Vincent” has been covered by everyone from metal punks NOFX to Dame Julie Andrews to Rick Astley and gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur reportedly loved it so much that, in 1996, after he was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting, his girlfriend played a tape of it for him in the hospital.

In a 2010 interview with The New York Times, McLean explained that he wrote the song while he was reading a biography of Van Gogh. “Suddenly I knew I had to write a song arguing that he wasn’t crazy. He had an illness and so did his brother Theo,” McLean said. “So I sat down with a print of Starry Night and wrote the lyrics out on a paper bag.”

Early Years

McLean suffered from asthma as a child and missed a lot of school. He spent much of that time indulging in his love of music, listening to the radio and lots of records. His sister paid for him to take opera lessons when he was a teenager, which helped him develop breath control. His asthma improved and he bought his first guitar from the House of Music in New Rochelle.

Inspired by The Weavers landmark 1955 recording “Live at Carnegie Hall,” McLean was so determined to become a professional musician he managed to track down the phone number of one of its members, Erik Darling, who helped the 16-year-old set up contacts in the music industry. After graduating from prep school in 1963, he attended Villanova University where he befriended fellow singer/songwriter Jim Croce. He soon dropped out and began performing at various venues along the East Coast as well as a few in Los Angeles. He earned his Bachelors degree in Business Administration in 1968 by taking night-school classes at Iona College and served regular stints at upstate New York’s Caffe Lena, as the Hudson River Troubadour for the New York State Council for the Arts and as a member of Pete Seeger’s Sloop Clearwater band. His first album 1969’s Tapestry, attracted good reviews and achieved some commercial success. But his transition to international stardom began in 1971 with American Pie.

Awards and Accolades

In 2000, the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts named “American Pie” as No. 5 based on a poll of the 365 “Songs of the Century.” In 2002, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and in 2017, the iconic song was inaugurated into the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry. Iona College conferred an honorary doctorate on McLean in 2001. In 2004, McLean was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by country star Garth Brooks. In 2012, he was awarded the BBC Folk Music Lifetime Achievement Award — he also performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that year.

Personal Life

McLean married sculptor and future craft maven Carol Sauvion in 1969; they divorced in 1972. He married author and photographer Patrisha McLean (née Shnier) in 1987 and they had two children, Jackie and Wyatt. They divorced in June 2016 following a domestic abuse incident, of which he plead guilty to the following month.

Touring

Throughout his career, McLean has been a consistent presence on the live concert circuit. He kicked off his latest tour on December 9, 2017 in Pennsylvania and currently has American dates set through mid April 2018; dates overseas begin the last week in April and he is scheduled to perform at the Ra’anana Amphitheater in Israel in June.

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