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Interview:
Don McLean on 50 years of "American Pie," 5 Things to Know
 

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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After 50 years, "American Pie" is anything but stale.



Since its release during October of 1971, the title track from Don McLean's sophomore album has transcended status as a hit single (four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100) to rank as a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Rich in narrative symbolism and metaphor, boiling down to a lament for loss of innocence, it coined the now copyrighted-term "the day the music died" in references to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Popper and Ritchie Valens. The song, enshrined in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry during 2017, is also credited with re-popularizing Buddy Holly more than a decade after his death.



McLean, 75, has done plenty since, including a covers album, "Still Playin' Favorites," last year and a new record in the making. But as we observe yet another anniversary of "the day the music died" on Feb. 3, "American Pie" is still his favorite slice of musical life, a gift that keeps giving -- with a new version recorded in collaboration with the a cappella group Home Free...



McLean says by phone from his home in Palm Desert, Calif., that he wanted "to write THE American song about my country," rejecting to some degree -- and despite a close friendship with folk icon Pete Seeger -- the anti-American sentiment prevalent in the waning days of the Vietnam War. "I wanted to write a great song about America, why America was great to me. The song is about the interaction between politics and music and how once influences the other and how they move forward. There's a lot there."







McLean recalls writing the song's lyrics "on these green pages that I got out of the garbage down in New York City. Some business was throwing away a lot of legal-size, colored paper -- it was about eight inches deep of this stuff and I put it in the back of my little car, and I always wrote songs on it. (The handwritten lyrics) sold for $1.2 million, those same pages. Isn't that funny?"



The Holly plane crash made a significant impact on McLean, who was a fan. So he was happy that "American Pie" help rekindle appreciation for Holly and his music in the wake of the song's success. "John Goldrosen, who wrote the book 'The Buddy Holly Story,' couldn't get it published, but after 'American Pie' he found a publisher. And Gary Busey and the producer of 'The Buddy Holly Story' movie came to my dressing room when I was signing in Los Angeles and sat down and told me, 'Don, without your song none of this would have happened.' All of a sudden Buddy Holly and his story were very, very interesting to Hollywood, and to readers...'American Pie' influenced a lot of things."



Among the notable covers of "American Pie" were Madonna's version for the film "The Next Best Thing" and Weird Al Yankovic's "Star Wars"-themed parody "The Saga Begins." McLean is a big fan of both. "The Madonna version was the biggest gift that 'American Pie' ever had. She had my version in the movie, her version, a bunch of people singing it. And that's one of her classic videos, so to have a song that was a hit from 30 years before, and now 50 years later with an alternative version -- who could've imagined that?"



McLean plans to use his trademark for "American Pie" and some of its key phrases (including "the day the music died") for future projects. "We're getting into the book business and the merchandising business and the 'American Pie' name as a brand. We're looking at a whiskey, American Rye. We've got a deal with Hobby Lobby for merchandise that will be in there. We're working with some people to get into the Chinese market. We have all sorts of opportunities. People know the song, they love the song, so I'm devoting these years of my lie to building a whole new business around the trademarks."

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