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Don McLean

If there was one song that defined singer-songwriter/contemporary-folk-rock (for the 70s generation at least), one would have to put DON McLEAN’s chart-topping `American Pie’ up there with the greatest, while his paean to Van Gogh, `Vincent’, might come a close second.
Born October 2, 1945, New Rochelle, New York, Donald’s formative years were stifled by asthmatic bouts, poor health and therefore lack of schooling; his love of folk music began in the mid-50s when he listened to The WEAVERS. The sad death of his father in 1961 led to opera and swimming lessons, a unusual combination that gave his lungs a new lease of life. In between dropping out of university in ’63 and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in ‘68, McLEAN moonlighted as a folk-club singer (venues included the Bitter End and the Gaslight Café), culminating in a residency at Caffe Lena’s in Saratoga Springs, NY. It was also during this time he became friends with singers ERIK DARLING, LISA KINDRED, JIM CROCE and PETE SEEGER; the latter minstrel became Don’s mentor and invited him on his expedition protest boat tour of the Hudson. This 6-week sojourn involved over 25 concerts at various riverside destinations, and made people aware of the river’s industrial pollution; Don was duly dubbed “The Hudson River Troubadour”.
In 1970, after numerous rejections from major record labels, McLEAN’s efforts were finally rewarded when the Mediarts group signed him and released his debut LP, TAPESTRY {*5}. Although the album failed to chart, crooner Perry Como subsequently secured a transatlantic hit in 1973 with one of its the tracks, `And I Love You So’; on the back of McLEAN’s “overnight” success, United Artists (who’d signed him in 1971) re-promoted the album, which peaked at No.111; also released on many occasions, usually as a B-side, opening track `Castles In The Air’ was nice enough AM-pop – sunny-side-up.
Towards the end of ’71, McLEAN’s enduring two-(part)-sided homage to the late, great BUDDY HOLLY, `American Pie’, captured the imagination and over a million people who bought this timeless piece of history. Similar chart-topping success followed its parent album, AMERICAN PIE (1971) {*8}, an album slightly overwhelmed by the opening 8+ minutes of its title track but for his other masterpiece, `Vincent’ (a UK No.1), portrait-painter extraordinaire. Introspective and intimate to the nth degree, morbid sentimentality shone through on songs such as `Till Tomorrow’, `Empty Chairs’, `Sister Fatima’ and `The Grave’. Only two albums into his musical sojourn, McLEAN’s soft, pastel-shaded aplomb presumably inspired the songwriting team of Gimbel-Fox to pen the haunting `Killing Me Softly’ (a massive hit for ROBERTA FLACK and later The FUGEES) in his honour. As for “American Pie” the song, it soon became something of an albatross around the singer’s neck, McLEAN spending the rest of his career attempting to distance himself somewhat; it’s since seen others give it a whirl, including MADONNA and GARTH BROOKS, while its title was procured for a series of ever-soh-wacky movies.
The eponymous DON McLEAN (1972) {*6} was, by comparison, a bit of a let-down for left-over folkies; for many there was too much schmaltz and soft-rock, although `Dreidel’ and love song `If We Try’ were respective major/minor hits nevertheless; his range was wider than a prairie trail by way of country-tinged `Bronco Bill’s Lament’ and 1930s novelty dirge `On The Amazon’ (from Brit musical, Mr Cinders).
Going further into the musical departure lounge, McLEAN headed off on an ill-conceived covers project, PLAYIN’ FAVORITES (1973) {*5}, a record that breezed between C&W, blues and nostalgic R’n’R, the latter genre accommodating a hit re-tread of BUDDY HOLLY’s `Everyday’. From Bo Carter’s `Sittin’ On Top Of The World’, Ruth McGhee’s `Living With The Blues’ and JIMMIE RODGERS’ `New Mule Skinner Blues’, to `Lovesick Blues’ and the Stanton-Walker pair, `Ancient History’ and `Over The Mountains’, this was a proverbial career-buster.
Continuing his “dustbowl hobo” vision, HOMELESS BROTHER (1974) {*6} was McLEAN’s attempt at socially aware balladeering, accompanied as it was by WOODY GUTHRIE’s old ALMANAC SINGERS buddy, PETE SEEGER, and dedicated to Lee Hays of The WEAVERS. Fred Astaire covered `Wonderful Baby’ McLEAN’s tribute to the dancer (a very mini-hit for Don), and this easy-listening work diversified between other songs like Artie Glenn’s `Crying In The Chapel’ to the more modern-day GEORGE HARRISON ditty, `Sunshine Life For Me (Sail Away Raymond)’.
Recorded in various cities in England, live in-concert double-set SOLO (1976) {*7} encompassed many of McLEAN’s “true” favourites, DYLAN’s `Masters Of War’ and JOSH WHITE’s `Where Were You, Baby?’ among them. Similar in some respects to folk-ish singer-songwriter JAMES TAYLOR (who’d also dabbled with some golden oldies), Don certainly wore his musical heart on his sleeve, caring not for the backlash or critical approval. Melodious and nostalgic to the point of barf, the prime example of his self-indulgence came courtesy of PRIME TIME (1977) {*3}, the Carr-Kennedy nugget `South Of The Border’ included.
Initially released in small numbers by Millennium Records towards the end 1978, CHAIN LIGHTNING {*4} only became a UK/US Top 30 entry when his reading of ROY ORBISON’s `Crying’ became a smash hit in 1980/81. Buffeted beside several McLEAN originals (the title track for one), there was further coverage from: HANK WILLIAMS (`Your Cheatin’ Heart’), PAUL ANKA (`It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’), GENE VINCENT (`Lotta Lovin’) and The Skyliners (`Since I Don’t Have You’); the CD bonus track was a re-take of GORDON LIGHTFOOT’s `If You Could Read My Mind’.
BELIEVERS (1981) {*5} continued the formulaic trend with covers of staples `Love Hurts’, `Love Letters’, `Sea Cruise’ and even his own(!) `Castles In The Air’; it proved to be McLEAN’s swansong US chart delivery, stalling at No.156.
Since then, however, McLEAN has moved increasingly into country-pop and easy-listening territory (on a plethora of mediocre records), only fresh original sets HEADROOM (1991) {*6} and THE RIVER OF LOVE (1995) {*4} could be described as anything like his old self. Just when one thought McLEAN had hung up his guitar to take his last trip in the Clearwater to “la la love you” land, he was back in top gear via 2010’s ADDICTED TO BLACK {*7}. Comprising eleven originals (one adapted from a certain William Shakespeare), it’s said to his bleakest set yet – now that’s worth listening to!
Taking the Nashville road back into the hearts and minds of his ol’ fanbase, 70-something crooner DON McLEAN returned to the fray on the environmentally-friendly and wholly self-penned BOTANICAL GARDENS (2018) {*5}. Like an old fashioned movie ticker-taping in an abandoned shed, the once-great singer-songwriter hit us with nostalgic jazz, blues and country pop; only his loyal contingent could subscribe to the merits of `Rock’n’Roll Your Baby’, `A Total Eclipse Of The Sun’, `You’ve Got Such Beautiful Eyes’ et al.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS Dec2013-Sep2018

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