On this day in 1945, the legendary founding keyboardist/vocalist/harmonica player of the Grateful Dead—Ron “Pigpen” McKernan—was born. Best known for his prodigious blues and R&B acumen, his inspired harmonica playing, and deep, soulful vocals, Pigpen was a pivotal member of the Dead during their most formative years. Whether it was his humorous ranting takes on “Turn On Your Love Light” or gritty versions of classics like “Hard To Handle” and “Big Boss Man,” Pigpen always stole the show in the 60s and very early 70s.
While the other members of the Dead dove head-first into psychedelics, Pigpen mostly abstained, preferring alcohol to any other vice. This showed through his raucous performing style, as Pigpen would steal the show in a pseudo-frontman role. Unfortunately, with pre-existing medical conditions and a penchant for booze, Pigpen’s health deteriorated by the end of 1972. Pigpen played his final show with the Dead at the Hollywood Bowl on June 17, 1972, before succumbing to a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home months later.
In remembrance of the late great Ron “Pipgen” McKernan, here are ten videos that capture his brilliance and contributions to the early days of the Grateful Dead:
“Big Boss Man” at Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA – 7/16/66
“Alligator” > “Drums” > “Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)” at Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA – 8/23/68
“Turn On Your Lovelight” at Thelma Theater, Los Angeles, CA – 12/12/69
“Smokestack Lightning” at Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA – 2/8/70
“Easy Wind” at KQED-TV San Francisco – 8/30/70
“Operator” at Fillmore East, New York, NY – 9/18/70
“Good Lovin'” at Dillon Gym, Princeton, NJ – 4/17/71
“Hard To Handle” at Hollywood Palladium, Hollywood, CA – 8/6/71
“Mr. Charlie” at Olympia Theatre, Paris, France – 5/3/72
“He’s Gone” at Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands – 5/10/72
[Originally published 9/8/16]