“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how the music used to make me smile.” Can’t we all?
That opening line from the classic song “American Pie” has been played, replayed, covered by other artists, sung badly by amateurs in karaoke bars and loved in its original form by tens of millions of music fans. It’s hard to believe that it was 40 years ago when singer/songwriter Don McLean’s ballad reached the #1 position on the Billboard pop music charts. His journey before, and since, that song’s inception is part of a new authorized documentary titled “Don McLean: American Troubadour,” released this month by Time Life. Emmy-winning filmmaker Jim Brown was granted unprecedented access and interviews for the film, as McLean gave his personal account of his career, as well as offering 15 live performances of his biggest hits. McLean also spoke with me for ON AND BEYOND.
His decision to work with Brown on the documentary was based partly on their long-time friendship.
“I knew him when he was a kid,” McLean said. “He made a movie called ‘The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time’ that I had a part in, then 30 years later, he called and asked about doing some interviews. I said, let’s go.” Brown took the idea to TBS and Time Life, they liked it, and McLean started telling his story on film.
““I’m a songster—I’ve always sang the songs that interest me, that I think I can get a handle on,” he said. “I really internalize each song, rather than just jump around.” It’s the formula that has guided his career. “Music has always reflected everything going on in my life. Without realizing it, my life and my music have been so intertwined and so personal that making the movie just made total sense.”
“American Troubadour” reveals things about McLean that even his most ardent fans might not know. He loves to do interior decorating (“I like antiques, rugs, color combinations, fun stuff like that,” he told me), has a huge home that he loves to tinker around in while his wife tends the garden, and is a “western horseman and trainer. I’ve been doing that for more than 35 years.” He says the documentary shows a lot of the struggles he has fought to get to where he is today, including “a breakdown that I had in the 1970s.”
But it’s largely about his music; his influences that included Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Pete Seeger; and how important Frank Sinatra was in formulating McLean’s ways of singing.
“Sinatra would sing some very slow songs, and I practiced that,” he said. “He showed me the importance of controlling a slow song.”
Born in 1945 to parents who “were a generation older than those of my friends,” McLean felt as a youngster that it was “really me against the world. My folks had already raised a daughter, so I was a surprise. I just gravitated towards music as a kind of refuge.” He admits that “I probably thought I was a better singer that what I was.” But timing is everything, and as he grew and his experience and talent developed, so, too, did the influence of his instrument of choice—the guitar.
“Before the guitar came along, if you wanted to be a singer, you had to sing with a band, and you had to read music,” he recalled. “I just had to learn chords, didn’t have to read music or make arrangements. In fact, a friend showed me how to play an E chord.” He learned quickly and, as history has shown, mastered the art of making music that has endured for generations.
After graduating from prep school in New York, he attended Villanova University, but dropped out after four months.
“I was not doing well, but in Philadelphia, I heard about this club called The Main Point. I visited there and got a job in 1967 working with Janis Ian. It’s also where I reconnected with Jim and Ingrid Croce, who I knew at Villanova. In 1969, just as Jim was getting his career going, they invited me to their home. Jim was a terrific guy.”
Both at the Croce’s home, as well as at The Main Point, McLean was surrounded by musicians who would become legends of their time. A long list of stars launched their careers in part at The Main Point, and “not everyone got to play there.”
In a press release about the documentary, Brown states that “Don McLean is a true artist and rugged individualist. He has deep American values that have defined an amazing and admirable life. I think some of his best work is yet to be discovered.”
If that’s true, then all of us who’ve loved McLean’s music have much to look forward to.
“Don McLean: American Troubadour,” both as a video and a CD, is available from a number of online sites, and more information can be found on his website at www.don-mclean.com.