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Flashback: Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ Hits Number One

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It was 44 years ago today (January 15th, 1972) that Don McLean’s “American Pie” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart during the first week of it’s four-week run. The song is the origin of the term “the day the music died,” about the February 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, but that’s only a small part of what it’s about.

McLean was a huge Holly fan growing up, and he was deeply moved by Holly’s death, but says that it’s merely the starting off point of what “American Pie” is about: “The fact that Buddy Holly seems to be the primary thing that people talk about when they talk about ‘American Pie’ is, is kind of sad. It’s only the beginning is about Buddy Holly, and the rest of it goes on and talks about America and politics and the country, and trying to catch some kind of a special feeling that I had about my country, especially in 1970 and ’71, when it was very turbulent.”

McLean’s followup single “Vincent” was a tribute to another of his favorite artists, painter Vincent Van Gogh. “Vincent” and its B-side “Castles In The Air” peaked at Number 12 in 1972.

The original manuscript for “American Pie” sold at auction last April for a whopping $1.2 million dollars through Christies Auction House. McLean talked about the life of the song that came to define — and often times overshadow — his career, posting a statement through the auction house when it announced the lyric sheet’s sale, writing: “I love the English language as much as anything in life and words really do mean something. I thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product on the song ‘American Pie’ so that anyone who might be interested will learn that this song was not a parlor game.”

He went on to say: “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music and then was fortunate enough through the help of others to make a successful recording. I would say to young songwriters who are starting out to immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song.”

He admitted that he has no emotional attachment to the lyric sheet: “I only have an attachment to my wife, children and my guitar. In fact, I’m going to rid myself of a lot of stuff. In a year or two, I’m going to have a big Christie’s auction with guitars, clothes, boots, saddles, silver and watches. I collect a lot of stuff. It’s time to let other people have it.”

Out now on DVD is the career-spanning documentary on Don McLean, called American Troubadour, which premiered in 2014 on PBS.

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