By far best known for "American Pie" (which was voted Number 5 of the 365 Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts), Donald McLean III (born October 2, 1945) is an influential folk-rock singer/songwriter. He reached the height of his success in the 70s with his album, American Pie, which contained the titular hit as well as the other notable single, "Vincent."
"American Pie" was written in memory of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, who were killed in a plane crash in 1959. The song popularized the phrase "The Day the Music Died" in reference to the event. The lyrics also reflect the impact that event had on McLean's childhood and the song is semi-autobiographical in nature. It reached number one on the charts for four weeks in 1972 and holds the record for the longest song to occupy that slot, with a run time of 8 minutes 36 seconds (though only half the song was on the A-side; the other half was on the B-side).
After "American Pie," McLean continued to write and perform songs. He found further success in the UK, but never again saw such popularity in the States. He is known for covering the songs of Buddy Holly, for obvious reasons, and also Roy Orbison—his substantial vocal range fits Orbison's repertoire well.
An interesting sidenote regarding McLean is that, according to songwriter Lori Lieberman, he is the unnamed singer in "Killing Me Softly With His Song" (a song Lieberman wrote that was later a hit for both Roberta Flack and The Fugees). The song was inspired when Lieberman saw him perform at a club and was struck by his sad breakup song "Empty Chairs". For decades, McLean was totally unaware he was the inspiration for this song. When he found out, he said, "I'm absolutely amazed. I've heard both Lori's and Roberta's version and I must say I'm very humbled about the whole thing. You can't help but feel that way about a song written and performed as well as this one is."
- Tapestry (1970)
- American Pie (1971)
- Don McLean (1972)
- Playin' Favorites (1973)
- Homeless Brother (1974)
- Prime Time (1977)
- Chain Lightning (1978)
- Believers (1981)
- Love Tracks (1987)
- For the Memories Vols I and II (1989)
- Headroom (1990)
- Christmas (1991)
- The River of Love (1995)
- Christmas Dreams (1997)
- Sings Marty Robbins (2001)
- You've Got to Share: Songs for Children (2003)
- The Western Album (2003)
- Rearview Mirror: An American Musical Journey (2005)
- Addicted to Black (2009)
He/His work contains examples of:
- American Title: "American Pie"
- Cover Version: Typically one or two per album, with some Cover Albums as well. His version of Roy Orbison's "Crying" gave him a comeback hit in 1980. Continuing with the theme established on "American Pie", he's done several Buddy Holly covers, the best known being "Everyday" and "Fool's Paradise".
- Cynicism Catalyst: Amidst all the Word Salad Lyrics, "American Pie" repeatedly references "the day the music died" — the day of the plane crash that killed rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.
- Go Mad from the Revelation: Similar to the Total Perspective Vortex from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "Infinity" appears to be about being confronted by the smallness of Earth in the universe.
- Grief Song:
- The chorus of "American Pie" grieves for the three victims of The Day the Music Died. The entire song is a eulogy for the musical scene of the '50s and '60s and the cultures surrounding it, and is grieving for more reasons than just Buddy Holly's death.
- "Vincent" mourns the tragic life of Vincent van Gogh
- "The Grave" for the unnamed soldier and his comrades.
- "I Am Great!" Song: The narrator in "Everybody Loves Me, Baby" claims that he's got everything in the world, except the person who he's singing the song to.
- Intelligence Equals Isolation: "Vincent" sings how Van Gogh was a creative genius ahead of his time, but that this made him a recluse too, misunderstood by others.
- Last Chorus Slow-Down: The final verse of "American Pie".
- Lyrical Cold Open: "American Pie"
- Lyrical Dissonance: "Have You Seen Me?" is a rollicking number about... child soldiers.
- Morality Ballad: "American Pie," sort of. Faithful fans and analysts of the song have more-or-less concluded it's a warning about the cultural breakdown of The '60s—that America had been severely damaged by it.
- Rearrange the Song:
- Madonna's version of "American Pie" took a few liberties, to say the least. McLean himself gave it a positive review, however, saying that the album's cover was "a gift from a goddess", and that her version was "mystical and sensual".
- McLean himself did this with his own "Castles in the Air", and wound up having a much bigger hit with the remake.
- Self-Plagiarism: "Vincent" and "Empty Chairs" are very similar in structure, tempo and chords, and both come from the same album.
- Something Something Leonard Bernstein: As mentioned above, the part of "American Pie" most people know (aside from the chorus) is "the day the music died".
- Titled After the Song: American Pie
- The Walrus Was Paul: On the subject of "American Pie", the only concrete explanation McLean gave for many years was that it means he'll never have to work again. He has admitted that the line "February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver" was about him learning about the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens while he was folding papers for his paper route. However, when he auctioned off his original manuscript of the song in 2015, he included his original handwritten notes in the sale, and also provided a more complete explanation of the lyrics in the sale guide, confirming many speculations and debunking at least as many others.