Famed for -- and ultimately defined by -- his perennial "American Pie," singer/songwriter Don McLean was born October 2, 1945, in New Rochelle, New York. After getting his start in the folk clubs of New York City during the mid-'60s, McLean struggled for a number of years, building a small following through his work with Pete Seeger on the Clearwater, a sloop that sailed up and down the eastern seaboard to promote environmental causes.
Still, McLean was primarily singing in elementary schools and the like when, in 1970, he wrote a musical tribute to painter Vincent Van Gogh; the project was roundly rejected by a number of labels, although MediaArts did offer him a contract to record a number of his other songs under the title Tapestry. The album fared poorly, but Perry Como earned a hit with a cover of the track "And I Love You So," prompting United Artists to pick up McLean's contract. He returned in 1971 with American Pie; the title track, an elegiac eight-and-a-half-minute folk-pop epic inspired by the tragic death of Buddy Holly, became a number one hit, and the LP soon reached the top of the charts as well.
The follow-up, "Vincent," was also a smash, and McLean even became the subject of the Roberta Flack hit "Killing Me Softly with His Song"; however, to his credit -- and to his label's horror -- the singer refused to let the success of "American Pie" straitjacket his career. Subsequent records like 1972's self-titled effort and 1974's Playin' Favorites deliberately avoided any attempts to re-create the "American Pie" flavor; not surprisingly, his sales plummeted, and the latter release even failed to chart. After 1974's Homeless Brother and 1976's Solo, United Artists dropped McLean from his contract; he resurfaced on Arista the next year with Prime Time, but when it, too, fared poorly, he spent the next several years without a label.
McLean enjoyed a renaissance of sorts with 1980's Chain Lightning; his first Top 30 LP in close to a decade, it spawned a Top Ten smash with its cover of Roy Orbison's classic "Crying," and his originals "Castles in the Air" and "Since I Don't Have You" both also reached the Top 40. However, 1981's Believers failed to sustain the comeback, and after 1983's Dominion, he was again left without benefit of label support. McLean spent the remainder of his career primarily on the road, grudgingly restoring "American Pie" to his set list and drawing inspiration from the country market; in addition to a number of live sets and re-recordings of old favorites, he also returned to the studio for projects like 1990's For the Memories (a collection of classic pop, country, and jazz covers) and 1995's River of Love (an LP of original material). ~ Jason Ankeny