Ronald Charles McKernan, known as Pigpen, was an American singer and musician born on September 8, 1945. He was a founding member of the Grateful Dead and played with the band from their formation in 1965 to 1972. McKernan grew up heavily influenced by African-American music, in particular the blues, and enjoyed listening to his father's collection of records and taught himself to play harmonica and piano. His father was one of the first white DJs on KDIA, which was a black radio station and as such he grew up with African-American friends and enjoyed black music and culture. His family moved to Palo Alto, California when he was 14 years old and he met and became friends with local musician Jerry Garcia. McKernan worked at Dana Morgan's Music Store with Garcia and one night Jerry invited him on stage to play harmonica and sing the blues. Impressed with his performance, Garcia facilitated him becoming the the blues singer in local jam sessions. He was initially nicknamed "Blue Ron" for his role before settling eventually on "Pigpen" because of his state of near constant dishevelment.
Garcia, Pigpen and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir formed the group that would eventually go on to become the Grateful Dead, but only after a few name changes and the additions of drummer Bill Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh would the group perform under that moniker. In 1965, right around the time that the then Warlocks changed their name to the Grateful Dead, Pigpen urged the rest of the band to make the switch to electric instruments. Acting as the group's leader and frontman, McKernan played the harmonica and organ while singing lead vocals on most songs. Pigpen's biker image and blues background heavily influenced the band during their early days, and their sets were centered around blues and R&B covers selected by McKernan. By the end of 1966 however, Garcia's musical skills had improved and he wanted to assert himself more as a leader and musical director, changing the band's direction and reducing McKernan's role. In 1968 McKernan and Weir were almost fired from the band as Garcia and Lesh believed they were holding the band back musically, but they both eventually returned to the band. When Tom Constanten officially joined the band after his departure from military service in late 1968 Pigpen was relegated to just the congas, to his humiliation, so he took up the hammond organ to contribute a more substantial role. But Constanten left the band in 1970 and he resumed normal keyboard duties.
McKernan was known for his heavily blues-influenced playing and singing, which was an integral part of the Grateful Dead in their beginnings. But as the band evolved, McKernan's garage rock style became less suited to the psychedelic and jamming style of the Dead. Because of this his role diminished greatly, going from contributing to every song and singing lead on nearly all, to more subtle and nuanced contributions to the band's compositions. He did however remain a staple of the band's live performance, with his rousing improvisational cover of "Turn On Your Lovelight" becoming the band's show-stoping set closer. But by his mid twenties, McKernan's alcohol abuse began to affect his health significantly and kept him from participating in the band. After being hospitalized in 1971 and asked to stop touring by doctors, the band recruited Keith Godchaux to fill the role of keyboard. Pigpen did rejoin the band for their famous Europe '72 tour, but continued health issues forced him to leave the band after returning to the states. He died in 1973 at the age of 27 of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage caused by his alocoholism. The band was devastated by his loss, and the song "He's Gone" subsequently became a eulogy to the original frontman.