Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia called his friend Ron “Pigpen” McKernan the “heart and soul” of the band. Garcia and Pigpen formed the legendary group in 1965, but the latter’s tenure as keyboardist and vocalist was cut short when a series of health issues led to his death in March 1973.
The Pigpen Era of the Grateful Dead was noted for the blues influence he brought to the band. Songs like Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’” and the traditional “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” were early staples of the Dead’s live repertoire, and became signature examples of Pigpen’s role as frontman.
Wilson Pickett’s 1965 hit single “In The Midnight Hour” was another song the Dead covered with Pigpen at the helm. The band was performing the blues favorite as early as 1966 and continued to play it through 1971, bringing it back into setlists with Bob Weir taking lead on a few occasions in the 1980s and 1990s. On September 3, 1967 – a few days shy of his 22nd birthday – Pigpen led the Grateful Dead on a truly standout version of “In The Midnight Hour.”
The 30+ minute, jam-filled performance featured Garcia, Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann backing Pigpen at the Dance Hall in Rio Nido, California. The opening sequence saw Pigpen displaying his onstage swagger as the quintet settled into a bluesy groove. At 16 minutes Pig lets out a shout of approval as the improvisation follows more twists and turns, now also augmented by his harmonica playing. About 21 minutes into the jam Pigpen returns to the microphone to add some improvised lyrics, soon after calling out audience members for not dancing and inviting them to “dance with Bobby.”
Give a listen to “In The Midnight Hour” from September 3, 1967 below: