Happy Birthday Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: Final Show With The Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan would have turned 76 today. Born Ronald Charles McKernan on September 8, 1945 in San Bruno, California in the Bay Area, McKernan sadly died on March 8, 1973 in Corte Madera, California from complications due to alcohol.

Ron’s musical journey began at a young age as his father worked as a blues and R&B DJ at a local station. McKernan went on to learn blues piano, guitar and harmonica. While living in Palo Alto, California in the mid-1960s, McKernan met Jerry Garcia, who was impressed by Ron’s prowess as a blues frontman and the two musicians would play in groups along with guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann that would eventually evolve into the Grateful Dead in 1965.

As Garcia recognized Ron as more of blues and R&B frontman, Pigpen largely embraced that role in the band’s early days as their lead singer and harmonica player as well as playing the Hammond organ. As GD adopted a psychedelic sound, Ron’s contributions became more limited to keyboards and the band brought a classically trained pianist, Tom Constanten, to help with the keyboard load. Throughout the late 1960s, Pigpen would still deliver rousing renditions of some of his signature songs like Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light,” “Good Lovin’” by the Rascals and Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle.”

Although Constanten — who developed a close relationship with Pigpen — would leave the band in 1970, the Dead brought in various keyboard players for the band’s two releases that year: Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. McKernan made contributions to both albums, most notably his penning of the American Beauty cut “Operator” along with his vocal and harmonica work on the Workingman’s track, “Easy Wind,” written by Robert Hunter.

But McKernan’s alcohol abuse also began to take a toll and in August 1971 Ron was hospitalized and doctors urged him to stop touring. Pigpen would heed the advice and GD brought in keyboardist Keith Godchaux. Pigpen rejoined the band in late 1971 in a limited role, fronting the group occasionally and playing harmonica on some of his signature songs. McKernan was present for the band’s landmark Europe ‘72 tour and returned to the U.S. with GD to perform their first show in the States since the Europe run at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on June 17, 1972. Sadly, it would be Pigpen’s last show with the Grateful Dead.

The concert saw GD still cookin’ from their Europe run. Pigpen can be heard talking with the crowd as the band gets warmed up and finally kicks things off with a spirited “Promised Land” by Chuck Berry ahead of “Sugaree.” The first set also sees standout versions of “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” as well as “Playing In The Band.” But Pigpen’s organ shines on the debut of “Stella Blue.” Although purely a coincidence, McKernan’s playing on the first-ever “Stella Blue,” a poignant song about a veteran musician looking back on a hard life, during his last-ever show with the Grateful Dead was one of those fortuitous aligning of the stars. The cosmic coincidences kept coming in the second set as Pig also laid down organ on the bluesy tune “Truckin” as well as on the second set closing section, appropriately beginning with “Not Fade Away.”

In honor of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, hear the Grateful Dead founding member perform with the band for the final time in June 1972 below via Dave and Jim Melton as well as Charlie Miller:

Setlist (via JerryGarcia.com)

Set One: The Promised Land, Sugaree, Black Throated Wind, Tennessee Jed, Me And My Uncle, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Playing In The Band, Loser, Beat It On Down The Line, Stella Blue, El Paso, Casey Jones

Set Two: Cumberland Blues, Truckin’ > Drums > The Other One > Ramble On Rose, Sugar Magnolia, You Win Again, Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad > Not Fade Away, One More Saturday Night