Ron "Pigpen" McKernan

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Ronald Charles McKernan

Also Known As: "Ron", "Pigpen"
Birthplace: San Bruno, San Mateo County, California, United States
Death: March 08, 1973 (27)
Corte Madera, Marin County, California, United States (Gastrointestinal hemorrhage as a complication of Crohn's disease)
Place of Burial: 695 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto, Santa Clara County, California, 94306, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Phil McKernan and Esther Elvera McKernan

Occupation: Rock Musician
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Ron "Pigpen" McKernan

Ronald Charles McKernan, nicknamed "Pigpen" (September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973), was a founding member of the Grateful Dead. McKernan sang, and played organ and harmonica. He contributed a blues element to the group, regularly performing such songs as "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", "Easy Wind", and his trademark song "Turn On Your Love Light"—a Bobby Bland cover that served as the finale for many Grateful Dead concerts from 1967 to 1972. In 1994, McKernan was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the other members of the Grateful Dead.

McKernan was born in San Bruno, California, the son of R&B and blues disc jockey, Phil McKernan. He grew up with many African-American friends and felt very strongly connected to black music and culture. As a youth, he taught himself blues piano 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.

McKernan began spending time around coffeehouses and music stores, 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. A high-school friend named Roger gave him his nickname based on his "funky" approach to life. However, in an essay included with the Grateful Dead box-set The Golden Road (1965-1973) it is claimed that a girlfriend of McKernan's gave him the nickname, owing to his similarity to the permanently dirty character in the comic-strip Peanuts.

After Constanten's departure in January 1970 over musical and lifestyle differences, McKernan nominally resumed keyboard duties, although many concert tapes reveal that "he was only intermittently playing organ"; 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". However, his vocal performances remained an integral part of the band's live set; by early 1971, the band's cover of the Rascals' "Good Lovin'" (exemplified by April 1971 performances at Princeton University and the Fillmore East, the latter officially released on Ladies and Gentlemen... the Grateful Dead [2000]) began to emerge as a secondary showcase of his talents.

During this period, 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. Pianist Keith Godchaux was subsequently hired and remained a regular member of the band until 1979. Ever restless, the ailing McKernan rejoined the band in December 1971 to supplement Godchaux on harmonica, percussion, and organ. 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.

On March 8, 1973, he was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage at his home in Corte Madera, California. In a 2013 webcast under Bob Weir's Weir Here imprimatur, longtime Grateful Dead roadie Steve Parish asserted that McKernan succumbed to complications of Crohn's disease, a condition which reportedly also claimed the life of his brother Kevin. McKernan is buried at the Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, California.

McKernan had a short romantic relationship and longer friendship with Janis Joplin; a poster from the early 1970s featured them together. Joplin joined McKernan on stage at the Fillmore West in June 1969 with the Grateful Dead to sing his signature "Turn On Your Love Light," despite her dislike of the band's jamming style. The two reprised this duet July 16, 1970, at the Euphoria Ballroom in San Rafael, California.

McKernan was good friends with fellow band member Tom Constanten, based on their mutual aversion to psychedelics. He eventually served as best man when Constanten wed. Despite his outward "biker" 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."

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Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's Timeline

September 8, 1945
San Bruno, San Mateo County, California, United States
March 8, 1973
Age 27
Corte Madera, Marin County, California, United States
Alta Mesa Memorial Park, 695 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto, Santa Clara County, California, 94306, United States