En español | Don McLean may have mythologized the role of rock in popular culture with “American Pie,” which marks the 50th anniversary of its release this October, but he's still on the outside looking in at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nod. Now 75, the singer-songwriter lives in Palm Desert, California, where he spent quarantine “sequestered in luxury” and working on an album of covers, Still Playin’ Favorites (released in October 2020). With the golden anniversary of his American anthem upcoming, McLean shares 15 things about his iconic song and long career.
1. He never made the cover of the Rolling Stone
"Rolling Stone and Jann Wenner never did like me or my music,” says McLean, who still has more than enough kudos, including induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “American Pie” has been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame and added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
2. ‘American Pie’ was named one of the top 5 songs of the 20th century
The song nabbed fifth place in a poll of the Top 365 Songs of the 20th Century compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. “American Pie” was edged out by, in ascending order, “Respect,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “White Christmas” and “Over the Rainbow."
3. He finally got his star, though
Honoring the 50th anniversary of the song, McLean himself was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this summer, right outside the Pie Hole restaurant.
4. He became a music fan when bedridden with asthma
Confined to bed as a child because of asthma, McLean became an avid listener of music, counting both Buddy Holly and Frank Sinatra as early vocal role models. The young musician took opera lessons and taught himself to play the acoustic guitar at 14.
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5. Pete Seeger was a mentor
McLean apprenticed on the ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene at clubs like Gerde's Folk City, Gaslight Cafe and the Bitter End, where his cohorts included the likes of a young Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. He was mentored by Pete Seeger and fellow Weavers Erik Darling, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman. He also spent time on the Clearwater, Seeger's Hudson River sloop, which influenced the environmental themes behind Tapestry's title track.
6. His career began in chaos
McLean recorded his debut album, Tapestry, in 1969 while student riots at Berkeley were raging.
7. Tapestry was rejected by 72 labels before it got picked up
McLean's debut album was released on the minuscule indie label Mediarts after being rejected, as the legend has it, by 72 others. The album produced “Castles in the Air” and “And I Love Her So,” a song that became a Grammy-nominated hit for Perry Como.
8. He learned the news of Buddy Holly's death just like in the song
A young McLean was on his newspaper route when he found out about the tragic plane crash in Iowa that took the life of his beloved idol. “That was the only real job I ever had,” he says of delivering papers. “What I write in the song is exactly what happened. From there, it becomes a fantasy, a rock ‘n’ roll dream of sorts. ... That's why I don't talk about the lyrics — I want people to come up with their own interpretations."
9. He's a one-take wonder
McLean says the whole first part of the song, from “a long, long time ago” to “the day the music died,” was sung spontaneously into a tape recorder, the melody and words emerging together as one, and that he jotted down the words only afterward. “Everything I write comes to me that way,” he says. “I'm not classically trained. I'm more of an inventor. I don't even know how I do this."
10. McLean revealed some of the cultural references in ‘American Pie’ at auction
While McLean has steadfastly refused to provide a word-by-word interpretation of the song, he did offer those jotted-down notes and original manuscript for auction at Christie's in 2015, fetching $1.2 million. ("The writing and the lyrics will divulge everything there is to divulge,” BBC News reported he told Reuters before the auction.)
11. Madonna and Garth Brooks have both covered it
While “American Pie” was covered by the likes of Madonna and Garth Brooks, it also provided the framework for “Weird Al” Yankovic's 1999 Star Wars-inspired parody song “The Saga Begins” ("My, my, this here Anakin guy…"). McLean gave permission for the parody, and has admitted to nearly singing Yankovic's lyrics in live performance because his children played it so often.
12. He trademarked stuff
A savvy businessman with a degree in finance, McLean made sure to trademark such phrases as “American Pie” — which came in handy when Universal decided to make that series of movies — “Starry, Starry Night,” “The Day the Music Died” and “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie.” He also still owns his own song catalog — administered through Universal — and even as the prices for securing publishing rights continue to mount, he refuses to part with his creations.
13. His influence reaches far and wide
McLean's work has influenced hip-hop icons like Drake — who sampled two songs ("The Wrong Thing to Do” and “When a Good Thing Goes Bad") for “Doing It Wrong.” The late Tupac Shakur was frequently quoted saying McLean's “Vincent” was an inspiration.
14. Far and wide
Spotify shows McLean garnered 124 million streams for his music from 92 countries last year. His most recent album, American Boys, comes out later this year through a digital deal with Time Life and Warner Music Group.
15. ‘American Pie’ is about more than cultural references
”‘American Pie’ was the story of an outsider, and I'm still that outsider,” says McLean. “Every moment of my life was devoted to living out those dreams of making music. You can't be earthbound. Cast yourself in your own movie and one day you'll wake up as the star in that film."
Roy Trakin is a pop culture critic; biographer of Sting, Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and MTV Video Music Awards voter; and longtime contributor to Variety, Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, The Village Voice and the L.A. Times.