Happy Birthday Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: Listen To The ‘Brooklyn Bridge Rap’ From 1971

Listen to the original member of the Grateful Dead deliver his infamous "Brooklyn Bridge Rap."

By Nate Todd Sep 8, 2022 1:59 pm PDT

Grateful Dead co-founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was born in San Bruno, California on this date in 1945. While Pigpen sadly died on March 8, 1973 from complications due to alcohol, his legacy lives on in his work with the Dead and especially in his signature raps. One dubbed the “Brooklyn Bridge Rap” is especially legendary and is the subject of this Pigpen birthday edition of Throwback Thursday.

Gowing up, Ron’s father Phil McKernan was a Bay Area blues and R&B disc jockey. Ron became enamored with the genres — so much so that his first nickname was “Blue Ron.” At age 14, McKernan moved with his family to Palo Alto where he would meet Jerry Garcia. Ron worked with Jerry at Dana Morgan’s Music Store and one evening Garcia invited McKernan to play harmonica and sing the blues with him. Impressed, Pigpen became the de facto frontman for the band that would come to be known as the Grateful Dead in 1965.

Ron fueled the Dead’s early blues and R&B leanings with his extensive collection of records from famous labels like Kent and Chess. McKernan adopted the style of a number of leading R&B frontmen, often engaging the audience and riffing off things he saw in the crowd.

Although Pigpen’s frontman role diminished as the Dead headed down the psychedelic rabbit hole, the band continued to feature Ron on signature covers like Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light” and The Rascals’ “Good Lovin.’”

Part of Pig’s performances on many of these tunes was to rap to the audience as the Grateful Dead jammed around him. A number of these vocal improvisations were captured for posterity and became entwined with the lore of the Grateful Dead. One of Pigpen’s most legendary raps came during a performance of “Good Lovin’” at an April 17, 1971 concert at Dillon Gym on the campus of Princeton University.

While Pigpen would have to take a hiatus from the Grateful Dead later in ‘71 due to increasing health complications from alcohol, the frontman was feeling it in Princeton, bringing a bit of street life to the Ivy League. This is the infamous “Brooklyn Bridge Rap.” The written word can’t begin to describe why it’s so named. It’s best to cue it up and let Pigpen tell the tale.

In honor of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s birthday today, listen to the “Brooklyn Bridge Rap” below via Whoa, Dude…Righteous!! (rap starts at around 5:00):

  • Happy Birthday Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: Final Show With The Grateful Dead

    Happy Birthday Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: Final Show With The Grateful Dead 

  • Happy Birthday Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: Final Show With The Grateful Dead

    Happy Birthday Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: Final Show With The Grateful Dead 

  • Happy Birthday Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: Grateful Dead Performing ‘In The Midnight Hour’ In 1967

    Happy Birthday Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: Grateful Dead Performing ‘In The Midnight Hour’ In 1967 

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