Written by Gregg Shapiro
“American Pie,” written and recorded by New Rochelle native Don McLean, is one of the most enduring songs of the last 50 years.
Described by McLean as simply being about America, it’s as famous for its irresistible chorus as it is for its many references to pop music icons. McLean also wrote several other songs that have become a part of the American songbook, including “And I Love You So” and “Vincent,” his poignant ballad about Vincent van Gogh and the artist as misfit. We spoke with McLean about his career in advance of his 2017 concert tour that will bring him back to Westchester County:
The Library of Congress recently added your 1971 hit “American Pie” to the National Recording Registry of 2016.
“I never thought I’d receive an honor in my life, and I’ve had a fairly good amount. ‘American Pie’ has lasted all these years. Now the government is awarding me things. I’m being noticed as a historical figure. It makes me feel proud. It makes me feel old. It makes me feel that I gave something to people that they could use and enjoy.”
What did you think of Madonna’s cover version of “American Pie” from the movie “The Next Best Thing”?
“Madonna gave the song a huge shot in the arm. I had a beautiful four- or five-year period where the song was relevant to young people. Madonna is a major artist in the world of entertainment and music. To have her do a song of mine was an honor.”
Regarding cover versions, your song “And I Love You So” was covered by Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Perry Como and others.
“It’s always amazing to hear Johnny Mathis do ‘And I Love You So.’ He has such a unique style. He has that echo chamber in his mouth and he does that song and it knocks you out. Elvis knocked me out with his version. He performed it every night for the last year of his life. It was the last song he ever recorded (live). Elvis was, of course, an especially huge influence on me. That I gave him something that made him feel good, happy and gave him something back is a thrill.”
Do you have an all-time favorite?
“I love Fred Astaire’s version of ‘Wonderful Baby.’ That’s probably my favorite cover. Of course, I love Elvis’ ‘And I Love You So.’ Cliff Richard did a good job on ‘Empty Chairs.’ Pearl Jam used to do ‘American Pie,’ too.”
What’s the trick to keeping your songs fresh for you and for the audience after all these years?
“As a young performer, you think that the audience really cares about you, (but) they don’t. The audience loves what you do. But they come to see you to forget their troubles. If you go onstage and start to sing in a bad way, talk about your divorce or your cat (that) died, it’s going to get old with them. They paid a babysitter, parking and took their girl out to dinner. They don’t want to hear your troubles. Your job is to go onstage and be a professional. Put everything you have into every song you sing. Completely focus your attention on that performance. When it’s over, you can go on worrying about your cat or the disease you have.”
How much of the material in your concerts are the classics versus new material?
“It’s about 60/40. I have thousands of songs in my head. I have hundreds that I’ve written. I’ll sing songs that are obscure off an album somewhere and also do the songs that people want to hear. Especially ‘Vincent,’ ‘American Pie,’ ‘Crying,’ ‘And I Love You So,’ ‘Castles in the Air.’ ‘Crossroads’ is a very big song in the show.”
Is there a memory you’d like to share as a native of the Westchester County region?
“I wanted to get out of New Rochelle. Everybody wants to get out of their hometown. When I look back now, I have a lot of fond memories. I had a wonderful experience, because I went to Orienta Beach Club for a few years. I was able to be on the swimming team and compete in the summertime. I had good friends. We sat around and played guitars. There were a lot of characters in New Rochelle, different kinds of people who were in show business, especially in the ’50s and early ’60s, when showbiz was in New York. There were great movie theaters. It was really good.”
Music biopics are still quite popular. If there were a biopic made of your life, who would you want to have portray you?
“(Big laugh) I was going to say Steve Buscemi, but I’m kidding. He could portray some of the kids I knew in high school. I’m a weird bird. There are a lot of talented actors out there that could probably take a crack at it.”
Don McLean performs Sept. 15 at Paramount Theater Hudson Valley in Peekskill. For more, visit paramounthudsonvalley.com.