Ronald C. "Pigpen" McKernan (September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973) was a founding member of the band Grateful Dead. His musical contributions to the Grateful Dead included vocals, Hammond organ, harmonica, percussion, and occasionally guitar. He died at the age of 27.
McKernan began spending time around coffeehouses and music stores, where he eventually met Jerry Garcia. One night Garcia had McKernan go on-stage and play his harmonica and sing the blues. Garcia was impressed; he knew he wanted this man to be the blues singer in all the local jam sessions. It is often thought that Jerry Garcia had given Ron McKernan his nickname of "Pigpen," but it was actually a high school buddy named Roger who gave him the nickname based on his "funky" approach to life.
McKernan was a participant in each of the predecessor groups leading up to the formation of the Grateful Dead, beginning with the Zodiacs and then Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Bob Weir and Bob Matthews were added to the mix and evolved into The Warlocks. Around 1965, it was McKernan who urged the rest of the Warlocks to switch to electric instruments (around the time Phil Lesh would join and they became the Grateful Dead).
McKernan was the high-energy bluesman of the band. He played blues organ as well as harmonica and vocals, and could rant improvised lyrics incessantly. While his friends were experimenting with LSD and other psychedelics, Pigpen stuck to Thunderbird wine and Southern Comfort. Pigpen steadily added more signature tunes to the Dead's repertoire, including some that lasted for the remainder of their live performance career such as "Turn on Your Lovelight" and "In the Midnight Hour".
In 1967 and 1968 respectively, Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten joined the Grateful Dead lineup, causing the band to take a stylistic turn from the blues towards full-blown experimental psychedelia influenced by avant-garde jazz, surrealism, and world music traditions. Constanten often replaced Pigpen on keyboards. In October 1968, McKernan and Weir were nearly fired from the band because of their reluctance to rehearse. The duty of the firing was given to Rock Scully by Garcia, and Scully commented that McKernan "took it hard." The remaining members did a number of shows under the monikers Mickey and the Heartbeats and Jerry Garrceeah and His Friends, mainly playing Grateful Dead songs without lyrics. Weir asked repeatedly to be let back into the band, promising to step up his playing, and eventually the rest of the band relented. McKernan was a bit more stubborn, missing three Dead shows; he finally vowed not to "be lazy" anymore and rejoined the band. In November 1968, Constanten was hired full time for the band, having only worked in the studio up to that point. Joe McIntire, an assistant road manager under Jonthan Reister, commented that "Pigpen was relegated to the congas at that point and it was really humiliating and he was really hurt, but he couldn't show it, couldn't talk about it. Ironically, the singer would achieve a new prominence throughout 1969, with versions of "Turn On Your Lovelight" (now fully ingrained as the band's show-stopping finale) regularly scaling thirty to forty minutes. He also developed an unlikely close friendship with Constanten based around their mutual aversion to psychedelics, and eventually served as his best man when Constanten wed. After Constanten's departure in January 1970 over musical and lifestyle differences, McKernan resumed keyboard duties.
In 1970, McKernan began experiencing congenital liver problems, likely exacerbated by his years of excessive drinking. After an August 1971 hospitalization, doctors requested that he stop touring indefinitely; pianist Keith Godchaux was subsequently hired and remained a permanent member of the band until 1979. Restless, the ailing Pigpen rejoined the band in December 1971 to supplement Godchaux on harmonica, percussion, and organ. Unfortunately, after their Europe '72 tour, McKernan's health had degenerated to the point where he could no longer continue on the road. His final concert appearance was June 17, 1972 at the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles, California.
On March 8, 1973, he was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, California. Pigpen is buried at the Alta Mesa Memorial Park (Plot: Hillview Section 16 Lot 311) in Palo Alto, California. His grave marker is inscribed:
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