On this day in 1973, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the founding keyboardist/vocalist of the Grateful Dead, was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at the age of 27.
Best known for his prodigious blues and R&B acumen, as well as his inspired harmonica playing and deep, soulful vocals, Pigpen was a pivotal member of the Dead in their 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 just had that ability to steal the show as the leader of the band in their earliest years.
Drummer Mickey Hart remembered his late friend and bandmate in Amir Bar Lev‘s 2017 documentary Long Strange Trip in saying, “Pigpen would come out and he’d get people up. We couldn’t do that, I mean Jerry couldn’t do it, Bob couldn’t do it, and Phil certainly couldn’t, but Pigpen could. As soon as Pigpen got up, everybody got up and danced, he had that thing about him. When he sang, you had fun.”
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 command the spotlight in his pseudo-frontman role. By the beginning of the 1970s, he also began to exhibit symptoms of congenital primary biliary cholangitis, a rare autoimmune disorder of the liver unrelated to his alcohol use.
Sadly, his continued drinking coupled with this condition caused Pigpen’s health to deteriorate quickly. Ron McKernan played his final show with the Dead at the Hollywood Bowl on June 17th, 1972 before passing away at his home months later.
In remembrance of the late, Grateful, Ron “Pipgen” McKernan, here are 10 live performances that capture his charisma, brilliance and foundational contributions to the early days of the Grateful Dead:
“Big Boss Man” – Fillmore Auditorium – San Francisco, CA – 7/16/66
“Alligator” > “Drums” > “Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)” – Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA – 8/23/68
“Turn On Your Lovelight” – Thelma Theater – Los Angeles, CA – 12/12/69
“Smokestack Lightning” – Fillmore West – San Francisco, CA – 2/8/70
“Easy Wind” – KQED-TV San Francisco – 8/30/70
“Operator” – Fillmore East – New York, NY – 9/18/70
“Good Lovin'” – Dillon Gym – Princeton, NJ – 4/17/71
“Hard To Handle” – Hollywood Palladium -Hollywood, CA – 8/6/71
“Mr. Charlie” – Olympia Theatre – Paris, France – 5/3/72
“He’s Gone” – Concertgebouw – Amsterdam, Netherlands – 5/10/72