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Feature: Don McLean to Songwriters Hall

By PAT NASON   |   June 4, 2004 at 5:05 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, June 4 (UPI) -- Don McLean, whose hit song "American Pie" was voted No. 5 in a recording industry poll of the top songs of the 20th century, will enter the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York next Thursday.

McLean will enter the hall with Charles Fox, Al Green and two writing teams -- Daryl Hall and John Oates, and Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield.

In addition to "American Pie," McLean also wrote "Vincent," "And I Love You So" and "Castles in the Air."

In a statement reacting to his selection to the hall, McLean said, "This is wonderful, and unexpected validation for an old lone wolf like me."

In an interview with United Press International McLean said the honor came out of the blue -- much as his career success had when "American Pie" carried him to stardom.

"I had no plans to be famous or rich or any of that stuff when I started out," he said. "I wanted to make a living and I didn't want to work for anybody."

McLean was already something of a loner when he was a young child in New Rochelle, N.Y., missing a lot of school and social relationships because of a severe case of asthma. He was just in his teens when his father died at 56.

"He was completely burned out," said McLean. "Whenever I watch (Arthur Miller's play 'Death of a Salesman') I think of my father."

McLean said he had always dreamed of singing, but his father would never have approved. With his father gone, he had the freedom to make his choice, and given his father's experience he was not about to follow in his dad's footsteps.

"I'll live in a cabin," he said, "I'll live in a cave before I work for somebody."

McLean felt so strongly about retaining his autonomy that he turned down invitations to join groups, preferring to go his own way.

"I still travel the same way I did when I was 18 years old," he said. "I carry my own guitar and my own bag."

McLean said his preference for solitude came largely out of his upbringing in suburbia.

"Suburban people don't have any roots," he said. "So I developed loves for different kind of music -- bluegrass, pop, rock 'n' roll, R&B."

He said his earliest influences included Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Woody Guthrie. Eventually, singers he admired were singing songs he wrote.

"I just realized really recently that through the last 30 years I have been one of the few singer-songwriters who has been fortunate enough to have his songs picked up by major big-time performers," he said, "Fred Astaire, Perry Como, Pearl Bailey, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughn."

McLean said the list of artists who covered his tunes eventually grew to include Julio Iglesias, Harry Belafonte, Chet Atkins, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris.

"And then Madonna, Josh Grobin and Garth Brooks," he said, "and Weird Al Yankovic."

In 2003 George Michael recorded "The Grave," from McLean's "American Pie" album, as a protest against the Iraq war. McLean said he was proud that Michael chose his song.

"We must remember that the wizard is really a cowardly old man hiding behind a curtain with a loud microphone," he said at the time. "It takes courage and a song to pull the curtain open and expose him."

Asked if he took any flak for his political expression, McLean said he has taken criticism for a long time, and recalled the time that someone threw a hardhat at him for something he said onstage in 1969. He remains critical of President George W. Bush's Iraq war policy.

"Things are so out of control in America," he said. "I'm so depressed over things. Everybody was so cowed by all this march to war and all this flag waving and this insanity."

Still, McLean said he is "100 percent American."

McLean said he received the notice of his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on Nov. 22, 2003 -- 40 years to the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy caused him to decide to leave college and devote his life to music. He said goodbye to friends -- including Jim Croce, who went on to stardom as a singer-songwriter before he died in a plane crash in 1973 -- and went out on the road.

"Tears almost came into my eyes when I got the notice," he said. "This has been such a long road and I've seen so many changes in America. America has always been my obsession, all the different aspects of it, cowboy music, blues, pop, the grandeur, the history of the music, everything. Now I'm a little part of it."

The National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame will also honor Stevie Wonder with its Johnny Mercer Award, given to songwriters who have already been inducted into the hall and whose "body of work is of such high quality and impact that it upholds the gold standard set by the legendary Johnny Mercer."

The Burt Bacharach-Hal David song "What the World Needs Now Is Love" will receive the 2004 Towering Song Award, presented each year to "the creators of an individual song that has influenced the culture in a unique way over many years."

--

(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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