American record producer Spencer Proffer still remembers the first time he heard the song American pie over 50 years ago.
“I realized that was something that was epic work – and because I was very socially, politically driven and this country was divided at the time…it really struck a chord,” said- he declared. Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho.
The song was the creative product by singer-songwriter Don McLean. When first released in 1971, the full song was eight minutes and 42 seconds long.
Initially, radio stations only played half the song because the entire piece could not fit on one side of a 45 rpm record. “But it got so much of a backlash on the radio that a few stations had the guts to air the whole thing — and it blew up,” Proffer said.
American pie is the subject of Proffer’s latest documentary, The day the music died. In it, Proffer explores the meaning of McLean’s song — and McLean himself talks about the 1959 plane crash that killed musician Buddy Holly, which the song references.
The documentary premiered July 19 on the Paramount+ streaming service.
Proffer spoke to Coelho about American pie, McLean and Holly’s connection and division in the United States at the time. Here is part of their conversation.
What is it in the song that made such a strong impression on you?
Personally, there were different images, visual images in words. There were different topics. Curiosity abounded when I wondered who the jester was? Because Bob Dylan was such a big deal back then, he was called the Jester. Who was the king? Elvis had just resurfaced after his fantastic comeback special.
There was a march, and I remember marching for civil rights and I didn’t know if that was what he meant. I knew there was a lot of division in America and thought maybe there was an element to that in the form of a great campfire song with a fantastic melody.
So it just struck me as a work of art…and it really gave me goosebumps when I heard.
We just heard a clip from the documentary where Ed Freeman, who produced the original song, called it a eulogy for a dream that didn’t happen. What was going on in America and how did the song… go through that?
What was happening, I believe, because I was there, was a lot of protests, a lot of marches against the war. There was a lot of duplicity. A few years earlier, in 68, [late U.S. senator Robert] Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated.
When you talk about death and you talk about the resurrection of discovery, what that means, Buddy Holly was actually a poet. And when, sadly, he died in a plane crash, it really hit Don. And he felt lonely because it was the day the music died, in a way, for him.
Rebirth became what he was referring to in the song, that we can all be reborn, we could all have dreams and hopes and aspirations for a better world, and I think this song is about all of that.
You remind me of the lyrics, “This will be the day I die.” So it’s a direct homage to Buddy Holly, isn’t it?
It is a direct tribute to all of us. Buddy was just the propeller of thought. But, you know, when music dies, we all die with it ’cause music is a tapestry that weaves [into] all our life.
But, yeah, the trigger point was when Buddy Holly lost his life, when he was such a big figure in regional music in America. It was the start of the next chapter and Don wanted it to go on forever.
What Don did in his own genius was he decided that now would be the time to reveal what he really meant, and my job was to give him the platform to do that.
You talked about how the song was inspired by the tragic death of Buddy Holly – also Ritchie Valens [and] JP (The Big Bopper) Richardson — all in 1959. Young musicians at their peak on this big tour. What did Don McLean tell you about what those deaths, what that moment meant to him?
What he told me that meant to him was…it shook him emotionally and it gave him inspiration to not only recount the feelings he had as a result, but the song didn’t. do not speak. It’s just a starting point.
The song is about America. The song is about the world. That’s why we have a cover of it in Spanish. We have Jade Bird who is a fantastic new American artist from England who did a new version which was released as a single to cross promote [the film]to draw attention to the film for the younger generation, because as a young girl growing up in England, the song resonated with her as well.
So it’s not just about Buddy Holly. There’s a separate Buddy Holly movie being made, funny enough, by a dear friend of mine who produced the Ray Charles movie. It’s not that. This is not a Buddy Holly movie. It is a film about the past, present and future song.
Making this film is clearly such a passion project for you. Why do you think this song still resonates with you today?
It’s timeless to me because the melody and the music [are] timeless, and the lyrics are just an epic tale. It’s like a poem that doesn’t stop. The best of Robert Frost, the best of Shakespeare, are all embodied in the way Don McLean wrote his poem titled American pie.
It’s different times now than the time when American pie was written, but right now we are living in a moment of tension and division and so many moments of fear. Do you think that makes the song relevant again?
This makes it relevant. This makes it timeless. It reflects what happened then, what is happening now. It’s all the same. We are all on the same planet.
I think the poignancy and timing of Paramount+ and Viacom embracing Don, mine and [manager Kirt Webster’s] the vision to bring this to the world today is just a serendipitous moment.
The song applies today, but it applies timelessly through the decades.
Produced by Pedro Sanchez. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.