“Mr. Charlie”: Hear The Dead’s Nastiest Version on Record

by Peter Wendel
We value your input so please make comments at the end of this post.

Dead1971PigsDebut: July 31, 1971
Last Time Played: May 26, 1972
Total Times Played: 45
Songwriter(s): McKernan & Hunter

Ron McKernan (aka Pigpen) was a brazen bluesman who preferred whiskey and wine to psychedelics.

Pigpen’s influence on The Dead’s early work helped create the band’s raw, unpolished sound and style – establishing a level of musical authenticity and grittiness that few other acts (if any) ever achieved. The Grateful Dead, with Pipgen leading the charge, provided the antidote to the over-the-top pomp and glitz of glam-rock bands, like Queen and Kiss, that emerged in the early-’70s.

Young Ron grew up on the blues. In fact, his father, Phil, was a blues disc jockey – one of the first white DJs on the predominantly black radio station, KDIA. Pigpen would spend hours on end listening to his father’s extensive album collection.

Pigpen68Pigpen’s throaty, liquor-laced vocals produced some of the band’s wildest, most memorable song performances, like “Alligator,” “Hard To Handle,” “Turn On Your Lovelight” and, of course, “Mr. Charlie.” These were tracks more suited to a biker bar than an Acid Test.

Pigpen’s influence over the band’s sound waned as Jerry Garcia honed his skills and took more of a leadership role.

The Dead would eventually evolve away from McKernan’s blues-imbued garage-band sound toward a more loosely structured improvisational approach to their music.

Although The Grateful Dead went on to find their true home in psychedelic improv, the blues-infused Pigpen Era was a treat to behold.

Here’s a smoking early version of “Mr. Charlie” – a Ron McKernan-Robert Hunter collaboration – performed just one week after the band debuted the song on July 31, 1971, at Yale University in New Haven, CT. The Dead would perform the song for the final time on May 26, 1972. Tragically, Pigpen would stop touring with the band the following month. He would die on March 8, 1973. He was 27.

August 6, 1971
Hollywood Palladium, Hollywood, CA

HEATERRRR! “Mr. Charlie” at its filthy, nasty best. This one gets my vote for the best overall performance out of the 45 times the band played it. They’re tight and right. Pigpen’s raucous vocals coupled with Garcia’s badass, gunslinging guitar work take this one way over the top. You won’t find a better all-around vocal performance than this one. Lead and backup are pretty much flawless. Jerry turns on the firehose at 1:22 so get your slicker on.

Listen here to the monster performance of “Hard To Handle” from the same night in Hollywood. Don’t miss it! Pigpen is on FIRE!

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.