Though the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead will forever be seen as the leader of the most popular jam-rock band in history, the late Ron "Pigpen" McKernan was actually its first frontman.
Born 54 years ago today in San Bruno, Calif., Ron McKernan grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., with a strong love for the blues. He learned to play the organ and possessed a strong voice.
In 1963 McKernan met bluegrass singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia. The pair formed Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions with guitarist Bob Weir and others.
Largely because of McKernan's musical passion, the band, which by that time included drummer Bill Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh, became an electric blues band called the Warlocks in 1965.
McKernan's rowdy stage presence and singing ability made him the Warlocks' frontman. The group became the house band at writer Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, a series of public LSD parties and multimedia events.
On discovering the existence of another band called the Warlocks, the group renamed itself the Grateful Dead, from a folklore term Garcia found in a dictionary. As the Dead began to evolve into a folk-rock-influenced jam band, lead guitarist Garcia became more prominent in the mix, but McKernan's Vox organ remained key to the band's sound.
Living communally in San Francisco, the Dead gave many free concerts and became regulars at the Fillmore. The Dead signed with MGM Records and recorded some material that the label didn't issue until 1973.
After signing with Warner Brothers, the Dead issued their eponymous 1967 debut LP and 1968's more experimental Anthem of the Sun. Following the equally intricate Aoxomoxoa (1969), the Dead carved their two 1970 masterpieces, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, which featured such classics as "Friend of the Devil" (RealAudio excerpt). The well-played, countryish tunes on the two albums gave the Dead most of their concert repertoire for years.
The Dead made their reputation at such seminal rock events as 1967's Monterey Pop Festival and 1969's Woodstock. In the early '70s the band began its legendary touring schedule, which sustained the Dead throughout the decades and resulted in the legion of "Deadheads" who followed them around and became one of rock's most famous phenomena.
But heavy drinking caught up with McKernan. The live Europe '72
was the last Grateful Dead LP on which he played. McKernan died in San
Francisco on March 8, 1973, of liver disease. Keyboardist Keith Godchaux,
whose wife, singer Donna, also joined the band, took over his position in the Dead.
The Grateful Dead went on to become an even larger touring sensation, breaking attendance records through the next two decades until Garcia's death in 1995.
Last year Michael Wanger and Grateful Dead Productions issued the CD Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, the first collaborative work of Garcia, Weir and McKernan.
The Grateful Dead, including McKernan, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Other birthdays: Kelly Groucutt (ELO), 54; Dean Daughtry (Atlanta Rhythm Section), 53; Michael Lardie (Great White), 41; David Lewis (Atlantic Starr), 41; David Steele (English Beat, Fine Young Cannibals), 39; Patsy Cline, 1932-1963; Brian Cole (Association), 1944-1972; and Jimmie Rodgers, 1897-1933.