Don’s first experience playing a musical instrument happened when he was 10 years old. A man named George Andrews lived behind the McLean Family. He was a thin, bald, anxious, chain-smoker who worked for a public relations firm in New York. Tension ran in the family, and his son ended up being institutionalized after having a nervous breakdown. George played the baritone ukulele and sang songs like “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine” and other jazzy prohibition tunes. He taught Don a few chords and allowed him to play his ukulele from time to time. After much persuading, Don’s parents agreed to buy him a ukulele for Christmas.
A year later, Don discovered that his friend, Brad Bivens, owned a guitar. After baseball, they would go back to Brad’s house and Don would practice the chords he had learned on the ukulele. Brad was the son of the TV announcer Bill Bivens and owned many great record albums by artists who remain some of Don’s favorites today: Carlos Montoya, Josh White, Django Reinhart, Johnny Smith, Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy and The Ventures.
On one visit, Brad’s father got drunk and started playing the blues harmonica. He then took out his 16mm film projector and played a kinescope of Elvis Presley’s first television appearance on The Tommy Dorsey Show. He was one of the few people in the world who had a copy of that film. The film captivated Don. It made him dream of performing on stage. Presley has always been McLean’s favorite artist.
Extract from Chapter 1 of The Don McLean Story by Alan Howard