Ron "Pigpen" McKernan

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Ron "Pigpen" McKernan
Ron "Pigpen" McKernan.jpg
Background information
Birth name Ronald Charles McKernan
Also known as Pigpen, Blue Ron
Born (1945-09-08)September 8, 1945
San Bruno, California, U.S.[1]
Origin San Francisco, California, U.S.
Died March 8, 1973(1973-03-08) (aged 27)
Corte Madera, California, U.S.[1]
Genres Blues, psychedelic rock, rock
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter
Instruments Vocals, organ, harmonica
Years active 1961–1972
Labels Warner Bros. Records
Associated acts Grateful Dead, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, The Warlocks
Notable instruments
Vox Continental
Hammond organ

Ronald Charles McKernan, known as Pigpen (September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973), was an American singer and musician. He was a founding member of the San Francisco band the Grateful Dead, which he performed in from its inception in 1965 to 1972.

McKernan grew up heavily influenced by African-American music, particularly the blues. He enjoyed listening to his father's collection of records, acquiring a substantial collection, and taught himself how to play harmonica and piano. He began socialising around the San Francisco area, meeting guitarist Jerry Garcia. After the pair had played in various folk and jug bands, McKernan suggested they form an electric group, which became the Grateful Dead. He was the band's original frontman as well as playing harmonica and electric organ, but Garcia and bassist Phil Lesh's influences on the group became increasingly stronger as the group embraced psychedelic rock. McKernan struggled to keep up with the change in direction, causing the group to hire keyboardist Tom Constanten, with McKernan's contributions limited to vocals, harmonica and percussion. However, he remained a frontman on certain songs in concert, such as the group's cover of Bobby Bland's "Turn On Your Love Light" and The Rascals' "Good Lovin'".

Unlike the other members of the Grateful Dead, McKernan avoided psychedelics, preferring to drink whiskey and wine. By 1971, a combination of increasing alcoholism and liver damage had begun to adversely affect his health, and he was advised to cease touring by doctors. He continued to perform live with the Grateful Dead as often as possible, but was forced to retire from touring in mid-1972. He was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on March 8, 1973.


Early life[edit]

McKernan was born on September 8, 1945 in San Bruno, California.[1] He came from Irish ancestry, and his father, Phil McKernan, was a R&B and blues disc jockey, who had been one of the first white DJs on a black radio station, KDIA.[2][3] He grew up with many African-American friends and felt very strongly connected to black music and culture.[4] As a youth, he taught himself blues piano, guitar and harmonica[5] and developed a biker image. In his early teens, McKernan left Palo Alto High School by mutual agreement with the school's principal. He also began using alcohol in his adolescence.[2] He built up a substantial collection of old blues 78s from labels such as Kent Records and Chess Records.[6]

McKernan began spending time around coffeehouses and music stores, and worked at Dana Morgan's Music store in San Francisco[7] where he met Jerry Garcia. One night Garcia invited McKernan on stage to play harmonica and sing the blues. Garcia was impressed and McKernan became the blues singer in local jam sessions. He was initially nicknamed "Blue Ron" before settling on "Pigpen".[3] He was allegedly given the name due to his untidy and unclean habits.[8] However, other accounts claim that he got the nickname owing to his similarity to the permanently dirty character in the comic-strip Peanuts.[9]

Grateful Dead[edit]

Main article: Grateful Dead

McKernan was a participant in the predecessor groups leading to the formation of the Grateful Dead, beginning with the Zodiacs and Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions.[10] Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann were added and the band evolved into the Warlocks. Around 1965, McKernan urged the rest of the Warlocks to switch to electric instruments. Around this time Phil Lesh joined, and they became the Grateful Dead. The group were keen to involve McKernan in the band, as he was considered the best singer and frontman, and he was the group's original leader.[11][12]

The Dead's early sets were centred around blues and R&B covers, chosen by McKernan.[13] However, by the end of 1966, Garcia had improved his musical skills and wanted to assert himself more as a leader and musical director, changing the band's direction and reducing McKernan's contributions.[14][15] In 1967 and 1968 respectively, Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten joined the Grateful Dead, causing the band to take a stylistic turn from blues-based danceable rock toward full-blown experimental psychedelia influenced by avant-garde jazz, serialism, and world music traditions. Constanten often replaced McKernan on keyboards in the studio, and McKernan found it difficult to adapt to the new material that Garcia and Lesh were composing for the band.[16]

In October 1968, McKernan and Weir were nearly fired from the band after Garcia and Lesh believed their playing was holding the band back from lengthy and experimental jamming.[17] Ultimately, the task of firing them was delegated by Garcia to Rock Scully, who said that McKernan "took it hard."[18] The remaining members did a number of shows under the monikers Mickey and the Hartbeats and Jerry Garrceeah and His Friends, mainly playing Grateful Dead songs without lyrics. Weir quickly rejoined the group after promising to improve, but McKernan was more stubborn, missing three Dead shows; he finally vowed not to "be lazy" anymore and rejoined the band.[19] In November 1968, Constanten was hired full-time for the band, having only worked in the studio up to that point. Road manager Jon McIntire 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."[20] He began to take lessons on how to play the Hammond organ and understand how the various drawbars and controls worked on it.[21]

After Constanten's departure in January 1970 over musical and lifestyle differences, McKernan nominally resumed keyboard duties, although he only played Hammond organ occasionally; consequently, the 1971 live album Grateful Dead featured three overdubbed organ parts from fellow keyboardist Merl Saunders in addition to McKernan's contributions on "Big Railroad Blues", "The Other One", and "Me & Bobby McGee".[22] Garcia in particular began to get frustrated at McKernan missing rehearsals and not being able to keep up with new material.[23] However, McKernan's vocal performances remained an integral part of the band's live set; by early 1971, the band's cover of the Rascals' "Good Lovin'" (featured at shows at the Fillmore East, later released as Ladies and Gentlemen... the Grateful Dead) began to emerge as a secondary showcase of his talents.[24][25]

Other work[edit]

After McKernan's death, a number of recordings were found in his apartment, which have appeared as bootleg recordings. These included a jam session with Jorma Kaukonen (later a founder of Jefferson Airplane) in 1964. Some solo recordings show a markedly different style compared to his work with the Grateful Dead, including a much softer vocal style. He accompanied himself on acoustic guitar, an instrument he seldom played with the Dead.[26]

Health and death[edit]

McKernan's headstone in the memorial park. The inscription reads "Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead".

McKernan's alcoholism had begun to take a toll on his health by his mid twenties.[15] By the early 1970s, he began to experience symptoms of congenital biliary cirrhosis unrelated to his alcoholism; after an August 1971 hospitalization, doctors requested that he stop touring indefinitely.[27] Pianist Keith Godchaux was subsequently hired and remained a regular member of the band until 1979.[28] Ever restless, the ailing McKernan rejoined the band in December 1971 to supplement Godchaux on harmonica, percussion, and organ, though witnesses found that at some gigs he barely contributed anything and at one gig passed out in front of his Hammond organ.[29] After their Europe '72 tour, his health had degenerated to the point where he could no longer continue on the road. He made his final concert appearance on June 17, 1972, at the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles, California.[30] He subsequently broke off all personal relationships, explaining "I don't want you around when I die."[31]

On March 8, 1973, he was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, California by his landlady.[31] Though his contributions to the band had slowly diminished over the years, they were devastated at his death.[32] McKernan was buried at the Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, California.[30][a] Garcia spoke at his funeral, saying "After Pigpen's death we all knew this was the end of the original Grateful Dead".[32]

Musical style and influences[edit]

McKernan played organ, harmonica and sang while in the Grateful Dead. He initially played a Vox Continental organ,[2] later switching to a Hammond. His main influence was the blues, and he brought forward many standards for the band to cover, that he could sing lead on, such as Otis Redding's "Pain in my Heart".[33][34] Unlike Garcia or Weir, the other main vocalists, he performed lead vocals as a frontman without playing any instrument except harmonica, and actively interacting with the audience, occasionally walking out into the crowd.[4] He performed the majority of lead vocals during the band's first year, when they played straightforward blues, and a sizeable number of the early audience came specifically to see him sing and play harmonica. He took on early management duties, ensuring the band would be paid and promoted properly for gigs.[3] While his bandmates and friends were taking LSD, marijuana and other psychedelics, McKernan preferred alcoholic beverages such as Thunderbird and Southern Comfort.[15][35]

McKernan's studio contributions declined during the 1960s. Though his garage band organ playing was appropriate for early recordings, it was less suited to the group's later psychedelic and jamming styles.[17] He went from singing lead on all of side two of Anthem of the Sun to little more than sporadic appearances on the following year's Aoxomoxoa.[17] However, he continued to perform as frontman in concert, steadily adding more signature tunes to the Dead's live repertoire, including some that lasted for the remainder of their career such as "Turn On Your Love Light", "Hard to Handle" and "In the Midnight Hour."[36] He achieved a new prominence in the late 1960s covering "Turn On Your Love Light", now the band's show-stopping finale, regularly taking fifteen to twenty minutes. McKernan improvised lyrics over the band's accompaniment, using phrases he had heard from black American friends, such as "rider" (slang for "lover"), "she's got box-black nitties" (referring to female underwear) and "boar hog's eye".[37] When the Grateful Dead appeared at Woodstock, the band's set (which was marred by technical problems and general chaos and described as one of their worst ever shows) ended with this song.[38]

McKernan was not a prolific songwriter, preferring to concentrate on blues covers and improvised lyrics. He composed the song "Operator" on 1970's American Beauty[39] and "Mr Charlie" with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, appearing on the live album Europe '72; the last album he actively contributed to.[40]

Band author Tony Sclafani has compared McKernan's role in the band, initially strong and pivotal but gradually declining, to that of Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones, particularly since both men were primarily influenced by the blues over rock 'n' roll and died aged 27. However, the comparisons are not entirely accurate as McKernan was always encouraged to sing material live and left the group due to ill health, while Jones was sacked.[17]

Personal life[edit]

McKernan had a close friendship with Janis Joplin due to common musical influences and lifestyles, particularly a shared love of alcohol over other drugs;[41] a poster from the early 1970s featured them together at 710 Ashbury Street.[42][43] Joplin joined McKernan on stage at the Fillmore West on June 7, 1969 with the Grateful Dead to sing his signature "Turn On Your Love Light,"[44] and reprising this duet July 16, 1970, at the Euphoria Ballroom in San Rafael, California.[45] McKernan was good friends with fellow band member Tom Constanten, based on their mutual aversion to psychedelics.[21] He eventually served as best man at Constanten's wedding.[46]

In the early years of the Grateful Dead, McKernan became a minor celebrity due to his distinctive biker image, to the extent that in 1969, the band's record company, Warner Bros. Records ran a "Pigpen Look-Alike Contest".[42]


Despite his outward image, friends and band biographers have described McKernan as a quiet, kind and introspective person. Drummer Mickey Hart later said "Pigpen was the musician in the Grateful Dead."[3]

Weir later became influenced by McKernan's ability to work a crowd and improvise lyrics. He took over de facto frontman duties in concert and began to reintroduce material originally chosen by him into the Dead's live set after his death.[47][48] He began singing "Good Lovin'" with the Dead in 1973, and the group recorded the song on 1978's Shakedown Street.[25] "Turn On Your Love Light" was revived in 1981, with Weir singing lead. He revived the 1960s standard "Big Boy Pete", originally sung by McKernan as a one-off gig in 1985.[49] Garcia sung Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man", covered by the group on Grateful Dead (Skull and Roses) with McKernan singing lead, occasionally through the 1980s and 90s.[50]

"He's Gone", originally appearing on the live album Europe '72 subsequently became a eulogy to McKernan by his former bandmates. Hunter said "it became an anthem for Pigpen".[51]




  1. ^ Plot: Hillview Section 16 Lot 374[30]


  1. ^ a b c Stanton 2003, p. 102.
  2. ^ a b c Scully 2001, p. 24.
  3. ^ a b c d Trager 1997, p. 260.
  4. ^ a b Sclafani 2013, p. 185.
  5. ^ Lavezzoli 2006, p. 83.
  6. ^ Scully 2001, p. 26.
  7. ^ Scully 2001, p. 23.
  8. ^ Room 2010, p. 380.
  9. ^ Hollow 2009, p. 30.
  10. ^ Malvinni 2013, p. 1.
  11. ^ Sclafani 2013, p. 187.
  12. ^ Malvinni 2013, p. 2.
  13. ^ Malvinni 2013, p. 28.
  14. ^ Malvinni 2013, p. 42.
  15. ^ a b c Sclafani 2013, p. 188.
  16. ^ Scully 2001, pp. 150,154,155.
  17. ^ a b c d Sclafani 2013, p. 189.
  18. ^ Scully 2001, p. 151.
  19. ^ Jackson 1999, p. 156.
  20. ^ Jackson 1999, p. 157.
  21. ^ a b Scully 2001, p. 155.
  22. ^ Trager 1997, p. 151.
  23. ^ Scully 2001, p. 208.
  24. ^ Malvinni 2013, p. 60.
  25. ^ a b Trager 1997, p. 145.
  26. ^ Sclafani 2013, pp. 191–192.
  27. ^ Trager 1997, p. 261.
  28. ^ Trager 1997, p. 142.
  29. ^ Scully 2001, p. 212.
  30. ^ a b c Stanton 2003, p. 103.
  31. ^ a b Sounes 2013, p. 96.
  32. ^ a b Scully 2001, p. 230.
  33. ^ Sclafani 2013, p. 192.
  34. ^ Malvinni 2013, p. 17.
  35. ^ Trager 1997, p. 152.
  36. ^ Malvinni 2013, p. 17,44.
  37. ^ Malvinni 2013, p. 57.
  38. ^ Perone 2005, pp. 120–121.
  39. ^ "American Beauty – Grateful Dead". AllMusic. Retrieved July 14, 2015. 
  40. ^ "Europe '72 – Grateful Dead". Retrieved July 14, 2015. 
  41. ^ Sounes 2013, p. 95.
  42. ^ a b Sclafani 2013, p. 191.
  43. ^ Bonhams Auctioneers (May 8, 2007). "Lot Details". Retrieved March 22, 2009. 
  44. ^ "June 7, 1969". (Grateful Dead official website). Retrieved July 14, 2015. 
  45. ^ "July 16, 1970". (Grateful Dead official website). Retrieved July 14, 2015. 
  46. ^ Conners 2013, p. 91.
  47. ^ Trager 1997, p. 399.
  48. ^ Malvinni 2013, p. 260.
  49. ^ Trager 1997, p. 38,378.
  50. ^ Trager 1997, p. 37.
  51. ^ Trager 1997, p. 176.


  • Conners, Peter (2013). JAMerica: The History of the Jam Band and Festival Scene. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-82066-3. 
  • Hollow, Michele (2009). Grateful Dead: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been. Enslow. ISBN 978-0-766-03028-2. 
  • Jackson, Blair (1999). Garcia: An American Life. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-140-29199-5. 
  • Lavezzoli, Peter (2006). The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0-826-41815-9. 
  • Malvinni, David (2013). Grateful Dead and the Art of Rock Improvisation. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-810-88255-3. 
  • Perone, James (2005). Woodstock: An Encyclopedia of the Music and Art Fair. Greenwood. ISBN 978-0-313-33057-5. 
  • Room, Adrian (2010). Dictionary of Pseudonyms: 13,000 Assumed Names and Their Origins, 5th ed. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-786-45763-2. 
  • Sclafani, Tony (2013). The Grateful Dead FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Greatest Jam Band in History. Hal Leonard. ISBN 978-1-617-13582-8. 
  • Scully, Rock (2001). Living with the Dead: Twenty Years on the Bus with Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Cooper Square Press. ISBN 978-1-461-66113-9. 
  • Sounes, Howard (2013). 27: A History of the 27 Club through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-82169-1. 
  • Stanton, Scott (2003). The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-743-46330-0. 
  • Trager, Oliver (1997). The American Book of the Dead. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-684-81402-5. 

External links[edit]