BEAR'S CHOICE: Celebrating Grateful Dead Co-Founder RON “PIGPEN” McKERNAN
“Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead” reads the epitaph on Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s gravestone at Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, California. Pigpen, the Dead’s co-founder and first frontman, died 50 years ago on March 8, 1973, at the age of 27.
A celebration of Pigpen’s life and music gets underway on “The Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast.” The official podcast of the Grateful Dead is launching its seventh season with the first of two new episodes dedicated exclusively to Pigpen. Also today, HISTORY OF THE GRATEFUL DEAD, VOLUME ONE (BEAR’S CHOICE 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION) is available for pre-order now and is set for release on May 5. Originally released in 1973, the newly remastered live album was assembled as a celebration of Pigpen and spotlights him in his prime.
The Deadcast begins its new season with the most in-depth biography of Pigpen ever assembled, a two-part episode exploring how the teenage blues enthusiast found a home in the fertile Palo Alto folk scene, joined his first R&B bands, and built a musical reputation of his own before becoming a driving force in the formation of the Grateful Dead. The episodes are built on a trove of newly unearthed documents and recordings, with a wealth of material from the McKernan family archive (including Pigpen’s early writings and 1971-1973 song notebook), excerpts from a pair of never-heard 1964 tapes (including one with Jerry Garcia), plus audio from the only full-length interview of Pigpen known to survive. The third episode of season seven will continue with the Pigpen theme, featuring a deep dive into the Bear’s Choice album.
Across the two Pigpen episodes, author and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow and singer-songwriter and producer Rich Mahan welcome an impressive list of guests including Jim Sullivan (steward of the McKernan archive and longtime family friend), Tom Constanten (Grateful Dead keyboardist, 1968-1970), and friends from the early days, including acoustic guitarist Eric Thompson, Denise Kaufman of pioneering band Ace of Cups and the Merry Pranksters, recordist Ted Claire, Grateful Dead archivist and legacy manager David Lemieux, and Starfinder Stanley, son of legendary LSD chemist Owsley Stanley. The episodes also feature archival audio of the Dead and clips from earlier Deadcast interviews with Bob Weir, Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay, and others.
In the wake of Pigpen’s death in March 1973, Owsley “Bear” Stanley curated Bear’s Choice in collaboration with the band to pay tribute to their fallen friend. Released on July 13, 1973, the live album features Pigpen singing lead on three of the seven tracks. To celebrate the record’s upcoming 50th anniversary, Grammy Award-winning engineer David Glasser has remastered the album from the original analog two-track tapes using Plangent Processes. The music has never sounded better.
HISTORY OF THE GRATEFUL DEAD, VOLUME ONE (BEAR’S CHOICE 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION) will be released on 180-gram black vinyl for $24.98 and available from digital and streaming services. On the same day, the newly remastered album will be released exclusively from Dead.net on custom “Bear Tracks” vinyl for $24.98. Limited to 5,000 copies, the album will be available with two different custom labels based on the artwork from the album’s back cover, which featured the debut of the now-iconic “Dancing Bears.” The newly remastered audio will also be available digitally.
In addition to the music, Dead.net is also introducing a new merchandise collection tied to the Bear’s Choice 50th Anniversary.
Stanley, the Dead’s fabled soundman and benefactor, recorded and produced the live performances on Bear’s Choice, the band’s first true archival album. The collection pulls highlights from the Dead’s February 13 and 14, 1970 concerts at the Fillmore East in New York City. The band played two sets at those shows, one acoustic and the other electric. Likewise, Bear’s Choice features an acoustic side and an electric side.
Pigpen opens the record with a haunting solo version of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Katie Mae.” He’s followed by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir performing several covers (“Dark Hollow” and “Wake Up Little Susie”), as well as “Black Peter,” a Dead original destined for the then-unreleased studio album, Workingman’s Dead. Pigpen takes charge on side two, leading the entire band (Garcia, Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh) on an extended tour de force through Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’” and Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle.”
HISTORY OF THE GRATEFUL DEAD, VOLUME ONE (BEAR’S CHOICE 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION)
LP Track Listing
1. “Katie Mae”
2. “Dark Hollow”
3. “I’ve Been All Around This World”
4. “Wake Up Little Susie”
5. “Black Peter”
1. “Smokestack Lightnin’”
2. “Hard To Handle”