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Ron Pigpen McKernan

Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan (September 8, 1945 - March 8, 1973) was a musician and member of the Grateful Dead. His contributions to the The Grateful Dead included vocals, keyboards, harmonica, percussion, and guitar.

He was born in San Bruno, California to a San Francisco Bay Area R&B and blues disc jockey. McKernan grew up in a predominantly black area and found a bond with the black music and culture. As a youth, McKernan began figuring out blues piano and developed a biker image that was to lead to the eventual cessation of his school career. In his early teens, McKernan was expelled from Palo Alto High and also developed a strong affinity for alcohol.

McKernan began hanging around coffeehouses and music stores where he eventually met Jerry Garcia. One night Garcia had McKernan hop on-stage and play his harmonica and sing the blues. Garcia was sold: He knew he wanted the man he now called Pig Pen to be the blues singer in all the local jam sessions.

Pig Pen was a participant in all incarnations of the Dead, beginning with the Zodiacs and then Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Bob Weir[?] and Bob Matthews were added to the mix and evolved into The Warlocks[?]. In fact, around 1965, it was Pig Pen who was urging the rest of the Warlocks to go electric around the time Phil Lesh would join and they became The Grateful Dead.

 
Pig Pen was the high-energy bluesman. He played blues organ as well as harmonica and vocals. Pig had an incredible ability to rant improvised lyrics incessantly. While his buddies were experimenting with LSD, Pig stuck to his old favorites, Thunderbird wine and Southern Comfort[?]. And Pig Pen added more and more signature tunes to the Dead's repertoire, including some that lasted throughout their whole career such as Turn on Your Lovelight and In the Midnight Hour.

In 1967 and '68, Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten[?], respectively, were added into the band, causing it to take a drastic turn from the blues towards psychedelia. Pig Pen's keyboard position was taken over by Constanten who would occupy that seat until 1970, but Pig stuck with the band, always bringing the shows to a climax with his intense audience-interactive raps.

 
At a time when these raps were really becoming great, Pig's liver began having trouble keeping up with his drinking. Pig no longer played much, but was always present to get the crowd riled. By 1971, the Dead were rehearsing with Keith Godchaux[?] on keyboards and Pig Pen vowed to quit drinking so he could still be a part of the band.

After their Europe '72 tour, Pig's health had degenerated to the point that he could no longer tour with the Dead. On March 8, 1973, Pig Pen was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage.



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