Don McLean Spills Secrets on His Iconic Hit 'American Pie' Ahead of Its 50-Year Anniversary (Exclusive)

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Don McLean is opening up about the meaning behind the lyrics to the iconic anthem he wrote at 24 in 1971 that has more than endured, it's transcended generations.

Ahead of the release of the new Paramount+ documentary The Day the Music Died: American Pie, McLean sat down with ET's Matt Cohen and offered insight into the legendary singer's thinking when he penned American Pie, widely considered a masterpiece for aptly defining an era brimming with tragedy, from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to the Vietnam War.

In fact, the track is so iconic, it came in at No. 5 in the Songs of the Century list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The song's success, though, came as a huge surprise to the man himself.

"Well, first of all, I was having a lot of fun writing this," McLean tells ET. "I never thought anybody would hear it, let alone would become what it became."

The new 90-minute documentary on Paramount+ (out Tuesday) takes fans on a line-by-line journey and the meaning behind the lyrics to his 8-minute, 37-second track. When he originally put the idea down on paper, McLean says he somewhat fancied himself as a painter.

"There are specific things that I was talking about in the song and then there's stuff that I just threw in, that I made up and put in there," McLean admits. "But the idea was that it would be like an impressionistic painting, OK?"

But some lyrics are not up for interpretation. In the documentary, McLean reveals (spoiler alert!) that his reference to "when the jester sang for the king and queen" has nothing to do with Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan.

Another lyric in the track is tragically rooted in a painful memory of a then 13-year-old McLean, after learning that a plane carrying Buddy Holly (McLean's idol), Ritchie Valens and Jiles P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) crashed in Iowa and killed everyone onboard in 1959, hence "the day the music died."

McLean may have thought "American Pie" would never reach the heights that it has, but that doesn't mean he's not keenly aware that some of music's biggest artists have drawn inspiration from the iconic song. Garth Brooks, Madonna and John Mayer are just some of the many who have covered the song. But some of today's global artists have drawn inspiration from lesser-known McLean tracks.

During the ET sit-down at his office, McLean pointed to two of his tracks -- "The Wrong Thing to Do" and "When a Good Thing Goes Bad" -- off his 1977 album, Primetime.

"Nobody bought Primetime," McLean says.

The singer says the idea behind those songs were to perceive America as a game show because everything Americans knew came through television. Fast forward to Drake's "Doing It Wrong" track off his 2011 album, Take Care, and McLean says Drizzy took the singer's two tracks and melded them together, lyrically speaking. Take Care was certified six times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, and the platinum record hangs on McLean's wall.

More recently, Taylor Swift dethroned McLean with the release of her epic 10-minute track, "All Too Well," which became the longest song to ever reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100's U.S. chart, a record that was held by "American Pie" for nearly 50 years.

When it became official, Swift sent McLean a bouquet of flowers and a kind handwritten note that read, in part, "I will never forget that I'm standing on the shoulder of giants." McLean was moved by the gesture, even if he wasn't aware of his feat.

"I didn't even know I had that record," McLean admits. "I never was aware of it. Someone said, 'Oh, she broke your record.' I said, 'What record? Don't you know 'American Pie' is the longest song for 50 years that was ever No. 1?' I said, 'Oh, that's great.' And Taylor Swift broke it with this song that she did. I had read about her and I've known her for years. She's been around a long time. But now, all of a sudden, she hits this new peak."

"So I started learning a little bit about what an amazing artist she is and an amazing person," McLean shares. "I wrote her a little thank you. She does it all. She does the video, she does the writing, she does the touring. I dig that 'Shake It Off.' It's a really good video and it's a good song."


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