Don McLean, an American singer and songwriter chats with Kevin Cooper about Ed Sheeran, Madonna covering American Pie, his new album American Boys, and his tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of American Pie.

Don McLean III is an American singer and songwriter, and is best known for his 1971 hit song American Pie; an eight and a half minute folk rock song about the loss of innocence of the early rock and roll generation. Influenced early in his life by Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly, it was an interest in folk music that made his mark with him.

He later learned the art of performing from his mentor Pete Seeger and even accompanied him on his Clearwater boat trip up the Hudson River in 1969 to raise awareness about the environmental pollution in the river.

It was during this time that he wrote the songs which appeared on his debut album, Tapestry, recorded in 1969 and which charted two years after its release. His second album, released in 1971, was called American Pie and from it the album title and Vincent became international hits.

In 2001 the single American Pie was voted number five in a poll of 365 Songs Of The Century compiled by The Recording Industry Association Of America. In April 2015 his original working manuscript for American Pie was sold for £809,524 at Christies’ in New York, making it the third highest auction price achieved for an American literary manuscript.

McLean continues to tour and in 2011 he appeared at Glastonbury. In 2014 he graced the stage at California’s Stagecoach Country Music Festival. During 2018 he embarked upon a world tour and in 2022 he is scheduled to perform a thirty five date tour of Europe, starting in Wales to celebrate the 50th anniversary of American Pie.

He has also released twenty two studio albums throughout his career and latterly in 2018 saw him release Botanical Gardens, 2020 Still Playin’ Favourites and next year American Boys.

In 2021 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

Whilst busy promoting his 2022 tour and the release of his twenty third studio album, he took some time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Don, how are you today?

I’m doing fine, I think. Thank you for asking Kevin and more to the point how are you doing?

All is good thank you and before we move on, let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s my pleasure.

And I am assuming that you are a little shell shocked at the number of interviews that you have been undertaking today?

(Laughter) well, you know, I’m a professional so yes, I’m shell shocked. But joking aside, I’m fine.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

At this moment in time, everything and everyone is treating me beautifully. I am enjoying being here in the UK; I am enjoying meeting people, and I am enjoying having the opportunity to be out and about in this great city, taking a few photographs whilst we were sightseeing and what not. So, in all, I have to say that everything has been very good.

You mention photographs; the last time that you were here touring the UK back in May 2018 I was fortunate to review and photograph your show at The Birmingham Symphony Hall.

Did you really, was it okay (laughter).

I have to be honest with you and say that it was a great night.

Thank you for saying that and let me tell you that I have a lot of new songs ready for the next time that you see me. Plus we will have more of the same but even better this time around.

In September and October next year (2022) you will be touring the UK to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of American Pie. Looking back, how does it make you feel?

I was thinking the other day about all of the guys that I have outlived who I started out in the business with. Plus, at my age, a lot of the guys are still alive, but they are not functioning. People like Neil Diamond have retired, and there are a hell of a lot of performers who are getting one thing after another. So I have been very lucky, and for that I am very grateful.

What were you doing at the time the inspiration came to you to write American Pie?

At the time, I was working with, and I was involved with the late Pete Seeger, on the Hudson River. Pete and I were working on a thing called The Hudson River Sloop, which was a big boat, a sloop which is a single mastered sailing ship, with a mast that was seventy-five feet, together with a huge, enormous sail. It really was an elegant looking vessel. The idea for me working with Pete first began way back in 1966 and I got involved then, even when I was in college because I had known Pete for some time before that. By this time, I was out of school, and I was living up there with a bunch of other people. We were writing songs and I had finally released the Tapestry album after a hell of a lot of setbacks. I was working on my second record, and I wanted to write a big American type thing. So, that is where I think the idea began.

American Pie has a running time of 8 minutes 36 seconds. Was the song always going to be that long?

Yes, it was. Back then, I always wanted to be a romantic figure; some kind of a cowboy, someone like Zorro maybe. Something like that.

Could it have been even longer?

No, the song went on until the story ended.

There is, and always has been, an inference that a certain Bob Dylan was The Jester. Is it true that he took offence at that?

To be honest with you, I don’t know simply because I don’t pay any attention to anything that anybody says or thinks. What I know is, if I had wanted to say his name, I would have. I mentioned James Dean in the song so if I had wanted to call him Dylan, then I would have. I didn’t because he isn’t (laughter).

Over the years, there have been many interpretations of the song. Has anyone ever come close to correctly deciphering the meaning of it?

To be totally honest with you, I don’t do deciphering. You will see that there is a movie coming out next year where I really talk about every single verse of the song. From that, you will get an idea that the song is much more complicated than people give it credit for. Having said that, at the same time the song is sometimes dumber too. There are things that I just put in there simply because I thought that they were funny (laughter).

Being totally honest with you, I have always thought that you would never reveal what the song is truly about.

(Laughter) well I am not really revealing what the song is about; I am simply showing how it was written and why. I’m showing what my thinking was at the time, that’s all.

Have you ever considered writing a ‘Definitive Guide To….’ (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) no I haven’t (laughter). That would have to be a 0900 chat line number (laughter).

In February 2000 Madonna released a cover version of the song in order to promote the soundtrack of her film The Next Best Thing. What did you think to it?

Well, you really couldn’t ask for a better present anywhere in the world than to have Madonna do what she did with that song. She put it out two different ways; she had it played on three different times in the movie that she made. So for me it was just this enormous gift from this humongous star. How could I possibly not be happy (laughter). Also, the video that Madonna made to accompany the song was one of the most famous videos that she ever made. Don’t you think so?

I have to agree with you and say that I thought that the video was fantastic.

That video is the thing that people remember.

I don’t know if anyone has ever told you, but BBC Radio 6 Music actually voted Madonna’s version of the song as the worst cover version of a song ever.

Really, the worst one, oh Jesus I don’t know. There really must be some awful ones out there (laughter). To be honest, I don’t care about Radio 6 and what they say. The thing about it is, any song of mine that gets used by people as long as it is appropriate and reasonably civilised, I think is funny or if it is really good, it really doesn’t bother me.

Are there plans to release anything special on CD or vinyl wise in order to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the song?

Yes, there is. There is going to be a new album released in the first half of next year called American Boys. The album is already finished and done but we are going to put the a cappella group Home Free on three tracks on the album. They are working on them as we speak. Also, I had a version of American Pie which I had recorded with them which was completely a cappella which went to the number one spot, here in America for eight weeks in the Country video charts. People around the world don’t know that, but that happened this year. I also won three Telly Awards this year, so it’s not been that bad to me has it (laughter).

Did it disappoint you that American Pie didn’t get to number one here in the UK?

No, not at all. I really didn’t care; whatever it did it did. I‘m sure that it wasn’t through lack of trying. The record label United Artists certainly wanted that song to make as much money as it could, because at that time they were building a new record company on the back of the income from that record.

You were kept off the top spot for two weeks by the late Harry Neilson’s Without You.

Yes, that’s right; Harry Neilson won the race to the number one spot over there in the UK with Without You. That didn’t bother me because I loved Harry Neilson; I loved his songs. Harry’s agent, a guy named Scott Schoocat, was also my agent and back in 1969 when I first met Scott, he was already having a lot of success with Neilson, and he gave me six of Harry’s albums. I went home, played them and I immediately loved Harry.

Your album Tapestry was rejected some seventy-two times. Did you ever think of calling it a day and giving up your ambitions to be a singer-songwriter?

No, that thought never crossed my mind. What you have to remember is that a certain part of me is Scottish, so I didn’t quit; I just got really mad. Nobody stops me (laughter). I have had a lot of things happen in my life and some people thought that they were going to bury me, and I buried them. No one stops me.

You recently received your own star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. How did that feel?

In a way, that is validating, in a wonderful way, because it is all the beautiful people that I have always loved, the actors, the singers, the musical acts, the directors, all of my Western stars are there, people like Buck Jones, William Boyd, Roy Rogers, oh god it’s just like Hillbilly Heaven. I really was happy that day.

The song is now preserved in the National Recording Registry.

What can I say, that was a total surprise when they told me that, it really was. I honestly feel that some of my other songs will end up there as well. They may even put the album American Pie in there; they do that sometimes. When you think about it, the album has Vincent, The Grave, Babylon, Crossroads, Empty Chairs, Winterwood; all of these songs that everybody knows.

Was it always going to be a career in music?

I have never really thought about things in terms of it being a career, I thought in terms of I didn’t want to work for anybody, and I didn’t really care what happened. In other words, I never really said, “oh my god, what will really happen if I don’t have dental care” (laughter). I never thought that way. I just thought that I didn’t want to take orders from anybody. So, then this wonderful world of music came along to which I felt that I was perfectly suited. I was a reasonably good-looking white boy who played and sang. I wrote songs and everything, and I soon found out that this was a business; there were jobs for someone like that. I was always really busy.

Do you enjoy your time spent here in the UK?

Yes, I do, enormously. I am really happy to have the chance to be over here. For me to be here there are a lot of hoops that I have to jump through but let me tell you, it is all worth it. I am really happy to be here.

You have mentioned the late Pete Seeger, were they fun times that you and he spent together?

Pete was a unique man, and I don’t really know if I would call him a friend. Having said that I would have to say that he appreciated me, and I appreciated him a great deal. Pete could be very friendly when he wanted to be, but he could also be very distant too. So, you really had to take Pete that way and realise that this is a guy who has a lot of fish to fry. He was always doing different stuff. I certainly never felt that he denied me access to anything. I would stay at his house, and he wouldn’t care if I looked through his files (laughter). He didn’t care what I did. He was very nice to me.

Back in 2018 you bumped into a certain Ed Sheeran backstage at the Backyard Concert. In your opinion, just how good is Ed Sheeran?

Well, what can I say except that he is the best that there is, isn’t he. I would say that Ed has got whatever it is; he’s got it. I have seen him come up through the ranks, he didn’t have this five years ago, he has been building, and building, and building, and he has got a certain genius. There are no two ways about it.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh Jeez, you know what, that happens a hell of a lot with me. I started to feel tears when I heard recently for some reason, I got back into Richie Valens, and I heard Donna again. That really got to me. That song always got to me when I was in junior High School, but it killed me when I heard it again. It is such a great little song, it was sweet and with being young and in love, he sings it beautifully.

On that note Don, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been delightful. You take care and I will see you in Birmingham.

Thank you, Kevin, you take care, and you certainly will. Bye for now.