I was in the audience that Saturday night in March 1971 when singer Don McLean performed his epic rock anthem "American Pie" for the first time. My memory tells me that the performance took place at the Fieldhouse of St. Joseph's University, back when St. Joe's was still a college. But dozens of published stories in newspapers and online identify that debut of "American Pie" as having taken place at Temple University, citing the source as none other than McLean.
Ironically, the stories that appeared last November on the 40th anniversary of "American Pie" were supposed to set the record straight about where the song was first written and performed. On Nov. 26, McLean told a reporter from the Glens Falls (N.Y.) Post-Star that, contrary to Upstate New York legend, "American Pie" was not written in a bar in Saratoga Springs - as a plaque above the third booth of the resort town's Tin & Lint bar declares. Instead, it was first performed in Philadelphia by McLean when he was opening for Laura Nyro at a concert at Temple.
"McLean wrote 'American Pie' in Philly, not NY," reported NBC10's website on Nov. 28. The following day, a story appeared in the New York Times under the headline, "Don McLean sets record straight on 'American Pie' origins," by a staff reporter filing from Saratoga Springs. Again, Temple was credited as the site of the first performance.
So what was I doing at St. Joe's Fieldhouse, and why do I remember it so clearly? I had come to see the headliner, the late, magnificent Laura Nyro, but I was familiar with McLean from his first album Tapestry, which contains one of his finest songs, "And I Love You So." But what I remember most clearly was instantly liking McLean. He had me from hello. "Wow," he said, beaming at the audience. "Philadelphia! You know you've made it when you play Philadelphia!"
And he wasn't just smearing cream cheese. He was as genuine as can be. And all of us Nyro fans were generous with our patience when he announced that he had just written a new song and he wanted to play it for the first time. He apologized for not having the song memorized yet and enlisted the aid of a woman in the audience to hold up the handwritten lyrics as he performed. I didn't have a clue what he was singing about, but like everyone else in the audience, I was singing along when he rolled around to the catchy refrain, "Bye, bye Miss American Pie. ..."
(Incidentally, after 40 years I figured out the meaning of "Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry." He wasn't referring to a dike on a river. A "levee" is also a party or reception. And since the levee was dry, them good ol' boys went out back to drink whiskey and rye.)
OK, so does it matter if the song's debut took place at St. Joe's or Temple? It's just a cork of fact bobbing in an ocean of misinformation. And how can I prove that my memory is accurate? What's a man to do? Turn to another man.
"Kevin, do you remember that Laura Nyro concert at the Fieldhouse in the winter of 1971 when Don McLean sang 'American Pie' for the first time?"
I am speaking to Kevin Gillespie, an old Catholic grade-school mate who was a student at St. Joe's at the time. "No, and I really wanted to go to that concert. I love Laura Nyro," Gillespie responded. "I had to work on a paper."
Apparently Gillespie's decision to follow his head rather than his heart was a lifelong discipline that got him to where he is today - the Rev. Kevin Gillespie, the newly appointed president of St. Joseph's University.
With the help of the university public relations office, I found the proof I needed in bound volumes of the St. Joe's student newspaper, which carried an ad for the concert in March 1971. Student tickets were $4. When I told Gillespie, he said, "March 17 you say? A Saturday night? Hmmm, maybe I wasn't working on a paper after all." (Kevin Gillespie. St. Joe's college student. St. Patrick's Day. Do the math.)
But I had misread the date. The concert actually took place March 12. No matter, because Gillespie had another pop music story with a St. Joseph's angle to share. "You know John Denver performed here in 1972, and he stayed in the dorms?" Gillespie said. "They say that's where he wrote 'Rocky Mountain High.' " I guess that's why they call it Hawk Hill.
E-mail Clark Deleon at email@example.com.