Don McLean released his debut album, Tapestry, at the dawn of the 1970s when the hangover haze of the 1960s still lingered strongly in the air. McLean specialized in that netherworld between ’60s coffeehouse folk and ’70s introspection, navigating the distance between confessional singer/songwriter and MOR pop. He’d never abandon this aesthetic, crafting a handsome, modest body of work over the course of nearly five decades, but he’d always be known for “American Pie,” his fluke 1971 chart-topper. A long, winding elegy for rock & roll, “American Pie” spent four weeks on the Billboard charts but that smash success was eclipsed by its enduring afterlife in the culture, where it served as the fodder for nostalgia and parodies for decades, eventually earning entry into the National Recording Registry in 2017. So strong was the allure of “American Pie” that it suggested McLean only had one charting hit, which isn’t true: its follow-up, “Vincent,” peaked at 12, and throughout the ’70s he was a mainstay on Billboard’s adult contemporary charts, culminating in his final crossover hit in the form of a 1980 cover of Roy Orbison‘s “Crying.” McLean faded from the charts not long after that, but he’d keep touring and recording all the way into the 2010s, relying as much on affection for his entire catalog as he did on “American Pie.”
Born and raised in New Rochelle, New York, Don McLean fell in love with folk as a teenager, thanks in part to the Weavers‘ seminal At Carnegie Hall album. Following his 1963 graduation from Iona Preparatory School, he spent a few months at Villanova University before becoming a part-time student so he could devote himself to folk music. He became a regular at the Gaslight Café and the Bitter End, making his way out to the Troubadour in Los Angeles, playing gigs wherever they arose. In 1968, he earned a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts and, not long afterward, his connection with Weavers leader Pete Seeger deepened as McLean supported Seeger on his 1969 Clearwater boat trip on the Hudson.
In February 2002, “American Pie” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2004, McLean was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Garth Brooks presented the award and said “Don McLean: his work, like the man himself, is very deep and very compassionate. His pop anthem ‘American Pie’ is a cultural phenomenon.