Grateful Dead Ron Pigpen McKernan

Grateful Dead Ron Pigpen McKernan

September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973

“Bring Me My Shotgun” @ Family Dog At The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA, April 18, 1970
Grateful Dead Ron Pigpen McKernan

Grateful Dead Ron Pigpen McKernan

Blues roots

The Grateful Dead with Pigpen were a different band than without. Of course, the Dead went through several personnel and style changes over its time. The Dead themselves were not always the instigators of those changes. The blues-based approach Pigpen brought to the band gave it much more a rock and roll feel than any  of the band’s other incarnations.

Unlike most other of the young musicians of the 1960s, Pigpen came to the blues mainly through his father. Phil a blues enthusiast himself and a DJ on station KDIA, a black radio station.

Grateful Dead Ron Pigpen McKernan

Self taught

Rod taught himself piano, guitar and harmonica. When he moved with his family to Palo Alto, California he befriended  Jerry Garcia Rod also collected a huge number of blues 78 recordings which also led him to befriend John Fahey and future Canned Heat singer Bob “Bear” Hite.

Along the way Rod McKernan became Pigpen. How depends on who you ask, but answers are many offered lovingly. Pigpen entered Jerry Garcia’s musical orbit and became part of that orbits named permutations: the Zodiacs, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, the Warlock, and finally the Grateful Dead.

Perhaps a much an indictment of the other members’ weak vocals as a compliment of his, Pigpen became the Dead’s main vocalist. For fans like me, his renditions of Buddy Holly’s  “Not Fade Away” or his half-hour plus “Turn On Your Love Light” will always be his songs.

Beverages not blotters

Unlike the other members of the group, Pigpen’s drug choice was alcohol. That choice also endeared him to Janis Joplin who preferred beverages to blotters.

As the Dead moved into more extended jams that relied less on keyboards, Pigpen’s place in the band diminished, though his reliance on alcohol did not.


Pigpen’s health declined and he had to leave the band to recover. His hiatus was between August and December 1971. For a band that seemed to be always on the road, he missed many shows.

Health issues again forced him to leave the band. His last show with them was on June 17, 1972, at the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles.

On March 8, 1973, aged 27 he was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. A sad addition to the 27 Club.

Grateful Dead Ron Pigpen McKernan

Next time you have 33 minutes and 41 seconds, give Pigpen a listen (again).

Grateful Dead Ron Pigpen McKernan

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

September 8, 1941 – March 25, 1992

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

From the start

It is interesting how we “discover” a musician only to find that they were far larger and wider than we ever suspected. Think Columbus and his “discovery” of the Americas.

I first saw his name when I started listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but Phillips was well-established already when he joined Butterfield in 1967.

Wilson had made his recording debut in 1962 on with Sam Lazar on Playback. In the mid-’60s, Wilson became a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an avant-garde jazz group. He cut albums with it as well as the band’s co-founder Roscoe Mitchell.

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Joining Paul Butterfield and Gene Dinwiddie in 1967, Wilson soon found himself playing at the first most famous rock festival: the Monterey International Pop Festival.  Though the audience and resulting movie gave Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Who the stellar ovations, Paul Butterfield Blues Band garnered recognition as well.

Phillip Wilson was also with the band when it played early that august sunny Sunday morning in Bethel, NY just before Sha Na Na and Jimi Hendrix. One of the songs featured was Wilson’s “Love March.”

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

Post Woodstock…

Wilson remained with the Butterfield until the early ’70s. From there he always remained active as a player, a producer, a composer, and occasional vocalist with:

  • Anthony Braxton
  • Full Moon
  • Julius Hemphill
  • Lightin’ rod
  • Roscoe Mitchell
  • David Murry
  • Hamiet Bluiett
  • INTERface
  • Martha and Fontella Bass
  • Lester Bowie
  • Peter Khuh
  • James Newton
  • Elliot Sharp
  • Bill Lasell
  • The Last Poets
  • Deadline
  • Soren Anders
  • Frank Lowe
  • Blues Brass Connection
  • The Rance Allen Group
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago
  • Paul Zauner’s Blue Brass
Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

Dogon A.D.

In 1972, Wilson was part of band that Julius Hemphill had for the Dogon A.D. album.

In a Do the Math article, David Sanborne said of Wilson: Wilson is one of the ultimate insider’s insiders, a brilliant force of possibly unprecedented range, unknown to many despite playing with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (including at Woodstock, where they played the Wilson composition “Love March”) and contributing one the most important drum performances to the avant jazz canon on Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D.

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

Phillip Wilson Project

He also released a few of his own albums including The Phillip Wilson Project.

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson

 Untimely death

Wilson was still actively pursuing his musical career when he was murdered on March 25, 1992.

Marvin Slater was convicted 1997 and sentenced to 33 1/3 years in  prison.

Slater appealed the conviction and on  January 11, 2000, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, First Department upheld the verdict.

The Court said in part, “The verdict was based on legally sufficient evidence and was not against the weight of the evidence. We see no reason to disturb the jury’s determinations concerning credibility.

Remembering Drummer Phillip Wilson