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Garth Brooks calls “American Pie” “probably the greatest song in music history,” while Brian Wilson says he was “blown away” by the song’s melody and lyrics. They share their revelations in The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’ a new documentary about the iconic 1971 song premiering on Paramount+ on Tuesday (July 19).
The song, which Brooks has sung since his days performing in clubs in the mid-‘80s, has been covered by Madonna, Josh Groban, Drake and even parodied by “Weird Al” Yankovic, and helped earn McLean a spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
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McLean grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., feeling loved but distant from his family, and entranced by artists such as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent. As most fans of the song know, “the day the music died” references Feb. 3, 1959, when Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens all perished in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The accident affected the then 13-year-old deeply, leaving him almost obsessed with finding out more.
Writing the song was the easy part, McLean says in the documentary, as he looked at a country roiled by Vietnam and still reeling from the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. “I’ve got to have a big song about America,” he recalls thinking. “One day it all came out like a genie out of a bottle.”
“No one’s ever written anything like it since,” says Brooks, and even McLean knew he had something special. “I just knew that I had something that was incredibly great and fun but that nobody else might dig at all,” says McLean over home movies of his original lyrics.
But as the exclusive clip below shows, capturing the right sound in the studio proved elusive. With only McLean on guitar and a bassist and drummer, “it kept sounding like a polka,” McLean says over rare footage from those rehearsals more than 50 years ago. Finally, producer Ed Freeman, who called the song “a eulogy for a dream that didn’t take place,” brought in a secret surprise into the studio who changed the atmosphere and the rhythm of the whole song.
United Artists released a shortened radio edit of “American Pie” in November 1981 — the full 8:42 version appeared on the album, while the 45 included part one on side A and part two on side B. By January 1972, it hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for four weeks. DJs began playing the full-length version, making it the longest song to hit No. 1 — a record it held for nearly 50 years until Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) topped the chart in 2021. (Swift sent McLean a bouquet after she beat his record, with a card reading, “I will never forget that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. Your music has been so important to me. Sending love one writer of long songs to another.”)
The song was nominated for Grammys for record of the year and song of the year at the Grammys held in 1973, losing to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” (written by Ewan MacColl) in both categories. In a segment that will delight the song’s fans, McLean goes over the enigmatic song line by line, answering such questions as to whether the “jester” is Bob Dylan, where is the “sacred store,” and if the “king” is Presley.
Neither the song, nor McLean, have lost any of their potency a half century later. As Spencer Proffer, CEO of Meteor 17, who produced the film, tells Billboard, “Don McLean is a brilliant poet, a formidable student of pop culture and a truly pure artiste. Learning what touches his soul and specifically what has informed his music for decades, was one of the brightest aspects of producing this documentary.”