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 Don McLean - In His Own Words

Blacklight Bar

The curse of the enormous hit and the constant association with it is Don's story. He keeps trying, but "American Pie" is one piece of history that's hard to duplicate.

Don McLean wrote the opening part of "American Pie" up in my little room where I used to compose. I started thinking back to when I was a paper boy, one of those experiences about growing up in New Rochelle, where I cut open this paper bundle and saw that Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens had been killed. I stood there and couldn't believe it. Holly was my favorite performer. So I started writing, "A long, long time ago," but I didn't know what to do with it.

Then I came up with the chorus, which was kind of catchy, but I left the thing alone for three months until finally one day I wrote this whole story about the day the music died.

Don McLean's Seventies
Billboard Top 40 Singles

"American Pie - Parts I & II"  12/71  #1
"Vincent/Castles In The Air"  4/72  #12
"Dreidel"  1/73  #21

The first time I played it was when I was opening for Laura Nyro at a concert in Philadelphia. I had a lady come out of the audience to hold the lyrics because the song was very long. People didn't know what the hell I was singing about, and I didn't get a very good reaction.

The record is where the song happened. I found a guy named Ed Freeman, who had done several records for Columbia. One of the reasons I liked Ed was because of a record he did with Tom Rush. Tom is a nice fellow, but not the most exciting singer in the world, but on this album he sounded wonderful, fantastic. I said to myself, "This producer must be someone special."

Ed spent a lot of time with me redeveloping my material. Over a period of months he did a lot of figuring as to who should be on the sessions. A little while later we rehearsed, and it was the worst. I mean, it sounded so bad. Suddenly this song, "American Pie," is the centerpiece of the whole record, and it sounded awful. The guys didn't understand the rhythm changes, and I had no idea how to communicate with them. I was getting very depressed.

Don McLean

"As much as I don't like to admit it, 'American Pie' did become a cross to bear. It's something I have to face. That's the way it is."

And then this one piano player named Paul Griffin, who had worked with Bob Dylan, started running "American Pie" down, and he played the ass off that song. It just started bouncing all over the place. He really pumped the thing and drove it. And with my guitar in his ear, and him jumping around on the piano, it came together. Once I put the vocal on, it became a very hot record.

I brought the same guys on "The David Frost Show" six months later, when the song was a hit, and they didn't play it well at all. I have no idea what happened. Maybe it was the length of the song, almost nine minutes. The record company said, "It's great, we love it, but why does it have to be so long?"

Don McLean's Seventies
Billboard Top 10 Albums

American Pie  1/72  #1

When the record started selling, it caused me to deal with a very boring subject, which was people asking me what the song was about. They would badger me to the point where I became quite frustrated. I thought their curiosity about this song was to the exclusion of dealing with the body of my work, which I felt was valid.

Don McLean Lyrics
Don McLean Videos

When the song turned into an anthem, some of the fun was taken out of it. Suddenly it became more of a struggle for me than it had been before. I don't know if people will understand this, but it can actually be harder after you've been successful. That's the way it was for me after "American Pie." The fact that "Vincent" was my follow-up to "American Pie" lessened that burden a great deal.

Not too long ago, I performed at an outdoor concert in Buffalo. Maybe eight, ten thousand people were there, and a lot of them were tough bikers, and I'm singing "Vincent," and the bikers are going, "Starry, starry night." Here were the toughest guys on the planet getting teary-eyed. "Vincent" never could have been a hit record had it not ridden in on the coattails of "American Pie."

But the record of "American Pie" did stillborn me a little. It prevented me from having the natural progression so important for an artist to have. As much as I don't like to admit it, "American Pie" did become a cross to bear. It's something I have to face. That's the way it is. 

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