Riots With a Side of American Pie

On March 26, 1971, the University of Maryland hosted the rock band Steppenwolf for two concerts at Ritchie Coliseum.  Much of the media attention focused on the disturbances that occurred during the 7 PM and 10 PM shows, as unruly fans threw rocks and bottles at police and swarmed around the building.  Some were unhappy with the high ($6) ticket prices; others were disgruntled because they had been shut out of the venue.  According to the Diamondback the following day, the commotion made Chancellor Charles Bishop strongly consider banning all future rock concerts on campus.

Steppenwolf Ad in Diamondback

Ad for the concert found in the Diamondback

Students riot at Steppenwolf concert
Police gain control over the riotous students
.

Reporters on the scene paid little attention to Steppenwolf’s opening act that night, an up-and-coming folk singer named Don McLean.  McLean had recently released his first album, entitled Tapestry, and sat down prior to the concert with one of the DJ’s from the campus’ station, WMUC, to talk about music and to sing some songs from Tapestry. McLean closed the interview with a song he had recently penned, entitled “American Pie.”  Just before he began to play, McLean talked about the inspiration for the song:

“Take you back about 10 years ago when Buddy Holly died.  He was my idol – he’s the only idol I ever had.  Let’s start off with that.  This is a rather long song, so…you better light up.”

McLean then launched into what would become the number five Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) project song of the century (see the full list here).  Having never heard the song before–the first documented radio play of this song occurred in June 1971–the DJ initially thought that the song was one of Holly’s rather than the one McLean had written:

DJ: That’s Buddy Holly?
McLean: No, no.  That’s not…that’s…uh…it starts off with him but it goes through a decade of music.

At the end of the interview, the DJ encouraged students to attend the shows that night–as well as McLean’s solo performance the following night at UMBC–and closed by saying, “This kid is dynamite!”

Students standing outside of Ritchie Coliseum for concert

Students gather outside of Ritchie Coliseum for the Steppenwolf concert

The interview dates two months before McLean recorded “American Pie,” May 26, 1971, and is believed to be one of the earliest recordings of the now-legendary tune.  You can listen to the full interview, including the recording of “American Pie,” by visiting the University Archives in Hornbake Library.

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