From his biker good looks to his gruff, dusty voice, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan managed to work that combination into one of the '60s most encompassing jam bands. His love for gospel and blues led him to be one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead.
Born September 8, 1946, in San Bruno, CA, McKernan grew up in a black neighborhood and was thus exposed to the related music and culture. His father was an R&B DJ, which no doubt added to the musical inspiration that would propel McKernan to explore his talents. After being expelled from high school, he officially began his musical career by picking out tunes on the piano and playing in bars.
While making the rounds on the early-'60s coffeehouse circuit in San Mateo, CA, McKernan met up with the man who would give him the everlasting nickname of Pigpen: Jerry Garcia. In the next evolutional step in band formation, the two decided they could work together and picked up a few other musicians to form Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, with Pigpen mostly covering keyboard, harmonica, and vocals. The first genuine recording of Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions was a self-titled release taped live in 1964. Musicians listed in the credits include eventual Dead stalwarts Garcia and Bob Weir, as well as Dave Parker, Tom Stone, Mike Garbett, and Pigpen, all of them getting credit for playing a variety of instruments, from kazoo to washtub bass. The release features early Dead tunes such as "The Monkey and the Engineer" and "Beat It on Down the Line."
The next official grouping for Pigpen would be Warlocks, with Garcia, Weir, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh. The impending evolution into the Grateful Dead soon followed and drummer Mickey Hart was added to the mix. Studio efforts featuring Pigpen include a self-titled Warner Bros. release in 1967 and the seminal American Beauty in 1970. Songs featuring Pigpen's honest and weathered vocals include "Katie Mae," "Hard to Handle," "Midnight Hour," "Death Don't Have No Mercy," and "Bring Me My Shotgun." He added his own fingerprint to the Dead's cover of "Turn on Your Love Light" with extra lyrics at the end ("She's got box-back nitties/And great big noble thighs/Working undercover with a boar's hog-eye"). He also recorded some songs for a solo album, but it was never released.
This grouping of Pigpen, in his leather jacket and bandana, and the rest of the counter culture proved an interesting bridge between bikers and hippies. A photo of the band perched on the porch of a house on the famed Ashbury -- complete with a shotgun-wielding Pigpen -- only brought on more comparisons to outlaws. (The photo, coincidentally, was featured in the very first issue of Rolling Stone magazine in regard to a recent police raid and the arrest of some bandmembers on charges -- not surprisingly -- of marijuana possession.) Another intriguing relationship came about with the romantic pairing of Pigpen with Janis Joplin; the two blues singers had dueted a few times in concert, but nothing serious ever transpired either way.
With a segue from less blues to more psychedelia -- and for Pigpen, a healthy liver to a troubled one -- Tom Constanten and Keith Godchaux were varyingly brought in to take over for the ailing keyboardist. After the Dead toured Europe in 1972, Pigpen could no longer tour with the band. On March 8, 1973, he was found dead from a stomach hemorrhage stemming from health problems brought about by his dependency on intoxicating vices. His contributions to the band live on in live recordings released from that time and on the countless bootlegged tapes of Deadheads everywhere.
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