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Don McLean talks ‘American Pie’ and Buddy Holly

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Right: Singer/ songwriter Don McLean. Right: Singer/ songwriter Don McLean. (photo courtesy of Don McLean/Keith Perry)

In late March of this year, Don McLean’s iconic song “American Pie” was selected for preservation by the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress “because of its cultural, artistic and historical importance to American society and the nation’s audio heritage.”

 “It’s validation from the higher sources of the art world and the government,” McLean told me in mid-April, during an interview from his home in Camden.

“It means that it’s part of the national arts treasure chest, I suppose,” he said. “That’s certainly something that a guy like me would never have expected to happen. But so many things have happened to me that I didn’t expect. Every few years, something wonderful happens and in the meantime, I keep working and traveling and singing to people all over the world and that’s not a small thing. I enjoy doing that enormously.”

“American Pie” - a Billboard number one song for four weeks in 1972 - was one of 25 works chosen by Librarian of Congress Carla Haydn as an American treasure. Other titles selected this year included Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow,” Talking Heads’ 1980 album “Remain in Light” and Big Mama Thornton’s original 1953 recording of “Hound Dog.”

McLean has always been reluctant to discuss the lyrics of his most famous song, preferring to let the song speak for itself and for listeners to form their own interpretation.

Most listeners understand the song’s connection with trailblazing 50’s rocker Buddy Holly, whose hit “That’ll Be The Day” is referenced in the lyric “This’ll be the day that I die.”

A big Holly fan, McLean was a 13-year-old paper boy when he learned of the star’s death while preparing papers for delivery on February 4, 1959.

In a 2009 CNN editorial coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, McLean wrote “This idea for a big song about America had been on my mind for a long, long time. I wanted some sort of a song that summed up the world known as America, and every time I would think about this, I would end up doing something smaller than the subject that I wanted and I couldn’t find it.

So all of a sudden this memory of Buddy’s death had the dramatic power that I needed and started my mind operating on a different level. And I was able to see where this song had to go, how big it had to be, how long it had to be.”

During my interview with McLean, he spoke at length about the significance of Buddy Holly and how “American Pie” resulted in a renewed interest in Holly’s life and music, leading to the publication of John Goldrosen’s biography “The Buddy Holly Story” and the 1978 film of the same name.

McLean also spoke about the May 26, 1971 recording session for “American Pie,” problems with his then-producer and why he credits one of the session’s pianists with making the song what it is.

A portion of my conversation with McLean follows. The full interview, in which McLean discusses the recording sessions for “American Pie,” the importance of owning your own songs, and why he loves living in Maine, can be found on our website www.TheMaineEdge.com

Don McLean: Buddy Holly was certainly the one who made me love electric guitar. I don’t play electric guitar but I have two phenomenal electric guitar players in my group (Vip Vipperman and Michael Severs). I love electric guitar and it’s because of Buddy. That led to me falling in love with The Rolling Stones when they first came over here. I saw them at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when ‘Satisfaction’ was number one (1965). I was always looking for electric guitars and groups that rocked. Buddy invented that sound, really, with The Crickets. He had the double guitars, bass and drums.

The Buddy Holly Story

A man named John Goldrosen wrote a book called ‘The Buddy Holly Story.’ He wrote me a letter in 1971 which has been published in two places (The McLean biographies “Killing Us Softly With His Songs” by Alan Howard and a coffee table book called “American Troubadour” written by Russ and Mike Cochran).

What the letter said is that he had tried for several years to get his manuscript for ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ published back in the 60’s. No publisher was interested because, in those days, nobody really cared about some dead rock and roll star who died in 1959.  We didn’t look backwards at that time. We weren’t that kind of culture.

In his letter, Goldrosen said that after “American Pie” came out, he immediately got a book deal. That book was used as the basis for the screenplay for the movie “The Buddy Holly Story” and one day, when I was singing in Los Angeles, both Gary Busey (who played Holly) and the director of the movie (Steve Rash), came to my dressing room and it shocked me because I didn’t expect to see folks like that. They told me ‘We made this movie and it’s because of ‘American Pie’ that it got made.’

I just want to set the record straight that that song was important in bringing back Buddy Holly to the place where he should have been all along and I am honored that it happened. That’s one of the big accomplishments of that song. More-so than getting any kind of award.

Dow:  You were a fan of Buddy Holly when he was alive and releasing records. What captivated you about his music and did your interest continue to grow?

McLean:  It did, yeah. The interesting thing about Buddy is that there are so many different kinds of songs that he sang. He sang beautiful ballads with strings. That’s the thing that people don’t think about when they think of Buddy Holly. They think of ‘That’ll Be The Day,’ ‘Rave On,’ ‘Think It Over,’ and then there were a whole lot of songs that he was writing that he made tapes of in his apartment. Songs like ‘What To Do,’ and ‘Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin,’ ‘Well All Right,’ really cool songs that he never had the opportunity to record definitive versions of. They were released with instrumentation added after he died and they sound pretty darn good. And those beautiful strings on ‘Moondreams,’ ‘True Love Ways,’ ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ and ‘Raining in my Heart.’ He was a diversified, sensitive artist, operating with a very smart, creative brain.

Recording “American Pie”

Dow: “American Pie” sounds almost like it was recorded live in the studio. Was it?

McLean: I had a contentious relationship with my producer (Ed Freeman), who insisted on editing my vocals, and it really wasn’t necessary. For example, I later had a number one record with ‘Crying,’ recorded in Nashville with The Jordanaires on backing vocals, and some wonderful musicians playing the instrumentation. That’s a live recording, with no edits on my vocal.

So there was this power thing that he (Freeman) would do which annoyed the hell out of me. He did some editing of my vocal which I did not like. The music was recorded in, I think, 13 or 14 takes but it was all recorded in one take. There was a lot of work done on it that I think was very good.

There are different piano players at the front and the end of the song, when we do the slow parts. And there’s a great piano player in the middle when we do the rock and roll part. His name was Paul Griffin and I shall forever give him credit for making that record what it was. I must say that none of the musicians who played on that record had any idea how to play it. They had it completely wrong for the several weeks that we worked on that thing.

On the day we recorded the final take (May 26, 1971, in Studio A at Record Plant in New York City), Paul Griffin walked into the studio. The producer had found him, so that’s to his credit. He came in started playing kind of a stride-gospel piano thing and everybody just jumped on it. I Thank Paul Griffin for having the record be what it was.

Buddy Holly did a number of songs in Nashville - ‘That’ll Be The Day’ being one of them. You can’t listen to that version of the song because it’s in the wrong key and at the wrong tempo. He later took the song to Clovis, New Mexico, and he had this producer there named Norman Petty who was just perfect for him. Buddy was a bit of a control freak. They laid that thing right in the groove and suddenly it blows up.

In my own career, the song ‘Castles In The Air’ was on my “Tapestry” album (1970), recorded when I was a nervous wreck. I re-recorded it later with Larry Butler (on 1981’s “Believers”) who also did ‘Crying’ and suddenly, I had a hit record.

That’s how important a producer is and that’s how important those moments were in the old days when you had songs. These days, most of the stuff you hear is a repetitive chorus that isn’t much of anything. I go into shopping centers and department stores where music is playing. I wander around a lot. I listen to the radio and watch television. A lot of what passes for popular music today is what we used to call a fragment of a song – something that wouldn’t even be good enough for The Beatles to have messed with on “The White Album” and they just repeat it a million times. You hear the same thing over and over and it just drives you crazy. People think it’s music and it’s not. It’s music-ish. It’s Spam – it’s not meat. Whatever you want to call it, it’s just not music. That’s why you don’t hear harmony anymore because there’s no melody.

The importance of owning your own songs

Dow:  You mentioned The Beatles. Paul McCartney (with Yoko Ono) is currently suing to gain ownership of his stake in The Beatles’ music publishing. Do you own your own songs? 

McLean:  When Michael Jackson bought the rights to The Beatles publishing (in 1985), he paid $50 million for a Billion dollar catalog. The Rolling Stones lost all of the publishing rights to their 60’s catalog of songs, along with the master tapes, to Allen Klein (the band’s former manager). The Beatles lost their publishing because the catalog went on the stock market, or something, and someone came in and bought the stock and took the songs.

So Paul McCartney – a billionaire – and he should have many more than a billion dollars for what he’s contributed to the world – he doesn’t own those Beatles songs and he would have to pay his entire fortune to buy them back.

(Note: Last year, Sony, who had purchased a 50 percent stake in the catalog from Jackson in 1995 for $100 million, acquired the full publishing rights to approximately 250 Lennon/McCartney compositions from the Michael Jackson estate in a deal valued at $750 million.)

In most cases, you can’t own your own songs these days because record companies make that stipulation a very important part of the deal. They want to own the songs, the masters, the merchandising, they want a large part of the concert money, and everything else. They act as the bank in a way.

Elvis Presley was with RCA records when most rock and roll stars were with small labels. Buddy Holly was on Coral Records, which was a subsidiary of Decca Records. Most of the others were on even smaller labels. RCA made sure that Elvis Presley never had an empty seat at his concerts and he always had a number one record. All Elvis had to do was deliver the music and he held up his end of the bargain. He put on a great show and made these movies that he didn’t like but they were successful and the soundtracks would have number one records on them.

It’s very hard to keep the publishing but I do own all of my songs and I control or own all of the records I ever made.

Living in Maine

Dow:  You have lived in Maine since the 1980s. Do you like it here as much as you always did?

McLean:  I like living here in Maine very much. I’m divorced now so I don’t enjoy living here as much as I always did but I do love this state and I love the properties that I have in Maine.

I wanted to bring my children up in a place that would allow them to have a beautiful childhood without drugs and all kinds of garbage around them. When we moved here, Maine was about 10 years behind all that. Unfortunately, it’s caught up with our kids in the state to some degree. My kids went to great schools. My children both went to really good schools. My daughter went to Bard and my son went to Colby. They are beautiful people and they had a wonderful experience growing up here.

Dow:  You keep a busy concert schedule. Do you have any Maine shows coming up?

McLean:  I don’t have any Maine concerts scheduled at the moment but I’m certainly happy to do one if somebody would like to book me. They can contact Guy Richard at APA, the agency in California. 

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