Happy Birthday Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: Performing With The Grateful Dead At Fillmore West In 1969

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Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, was born in San Bruno, California on this date in 1945. Pigpen would be celebrating his 75th birthday today had he not succumbed to health issues on March 8, 1973.

McKernan would often serve as frontman of the Grateful Dead in addition to his duties as keyboardist and harmonica player. Pigpen was a huge fan of the blues and helped the band show off that side of their musiciality on such covers as “Hard To Handle,” “Smokestack Lightning” and “It Hurts Me Too” as well as originals including “Mr. Charlie,” “Alligator,” “Easy Wind” and “The Stranger (Two Souls In Communion).” However, if Pigpen had one signature song it was the Dead’s takes on “Turn On Your Love Light.”

Bobby “Blue” Bland originally released “Turn On Your Love Light” in 1961. The Grateful Dead debuted their Pigpen-led rendition of the song in August 1967 and played the song regularly through 1970. McKernan would often use the opportunity to improvise raps with some versions expanding beyond the 45-minute mark. The Dead famously delivered a 45+ minute “Love Light” at the Woodstock Festival in August of 1969. Pigpen let his light shine in a big way a few months earlier, when he led a raucous version at Fillmore West in San Francisco on June 6, 1969.

Only a partial recording of the Dead’s guest-filled June 6, 1969 performance exists. The “Turn On Your Love Light” runs nearly 47 minutes and features Pigpen at his finest. Stream the portion of the concert that circulates including “Love Light” below:

Partial Setlist

Smokestack Lightning*, Green Green Grass Of Home*, Me & My Uncle*, Checkin’ Up On My Baby^, Beat It On Down The Line^, Turn On Your Love Light

  • * without Jerry Garcia; with Elvin Bishop.
  • ^ without Jerry Garcia; with Elvin Bishop; with Wayne Ceballos.