Ronald Charles McKernan was born September 8th, 1945, in suburban San Bruno, California, on the San Francisco Peninsula. His father, Phil McKernan, was a disk jockey who had a daily blues program on radio station KRE in Berkeley from 1951 to 1956. In 1966 McKernan told an interviewer, “I began singin’ at 16. I wasn’t in school, I was just goof-in’. I’ve always been singing along with records, my dad was a disk jockey, and it’s been what I wanted to do.”
His parents and his young brother and sister, Kevin and Carol, followed his career with the Grateful Dead and, according to Kevin McKernan, “attended every concert the Dead played on the peninsula.”
“You can quote me as saying this,” Kevin also said: “I plan to follow in his footsteps.”
Ron left school at 16 and started hanging out at a Palo Alto club called the Chateau, where he met a young guitarist and banjoist named Jerry Garcia. In 1964 the two of them formed Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions with Bob Weir. The jug band became the nucleus of the Grateful Dead.
Garcia credits McKernan with the idea of playing rock & roll: “He’d been pestering me for a while, he wanted me to start up an electric blues band. That was his trip . . . because in the jugband scene we used to do blues numbers, like Jimmy Reed tunes.” When the group went electric, McKernan switched from harmonica to organ, and his singing, which owed something to Chicago blues, something to Lightnin’ Hopkins, was featured.
With the addition of Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzman on drums, the Warlocks were born. The group changed the name to the Grateful Dead in 1966, after long association with Owsley Stanley, the acid chemist, and Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, and became a mainstay of the San Francisco ballroom scene.
With his long black hair in an Indian headband, his striped shirts, his black leather jacket covered with medals and a Hell’s Angels patch, his biker’s cap and often a couple of days’ growth of beard, “Pigpen” was the most visual member of the group. But for all the rowdy appearance — he rode a BSA and was an honorary Hell’s Angel — McKernan was known as a gentle, introverted soul.
“He was a warm, lovable cat,” says Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld. “Unlike many rock & roll stars, he never projected an image of skulking evil.” Ironically, McKernan was one of two members of the Dead arrested in a famous 1967 bust; of the group he was by far the least into drugs.
In 1971 McKernan first fell ill and for about a year seldom played with the Dead. He joined the group for its European tour last summer, reportedly against doctor’s orders, and when he returned, his condition was diagnosed as anemia. Last year, for the first time, he didn’t join the Dead to sing “Midnight Hour” or “Love Light” at the group’s traditional New Year’s Eve concert.