The first four keyboard players for the famed rock group died untimely deaths - three of them before they'd reached their 38th birthdays.
Without Ron McKernan, the Dead might not have happened at all. It was McKernan who first suggested forming the band that began as the Warlocks and evolved into the Grateful Dead. In the band's earliest years, McKernan acted as front man, playing the harmonica and keyboards while adding gritty blues vocals.
The son of an R&B disc jockey who moonlighted as a boogie woogie piano player around his San Bruno, California, home base, McKernan's drinking and biker image led his expulsion from Palo Alto High School around the same time he met Jerry Garcia, who played for a local band, the Zodiacs.
Although McKernan was a mediocre keyboard player and had a rough, unpolished voice, Garcia was impressed with his rough-edge persona. Garcia - who tagged McKernan with the nickname "Pigpen" - eventually added him to his band, which evolved into Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Band, then the Warlocks and, finally, the Grateful Dead. In 1965 - as the band was shifting away from folk music - McKernan suggested they go electric.
That was just one change for the band, however. While Garcia and most of his Dead bandmates started experimenting with psychedelic drugs, McKernan elected instead to stay with his Thunderbird wine and Southern Comfort.
McKernan's drinking forced his bandmates to recruit some backup help to fill in for their increasingly unreliable keyboard player. But whenever possible, the Dead called on McKernan to close their shows with Turn On Your Lovelight, the Bobby Womack song that McKernan had transformed into what famed critic Ralph Gleason once referred to as "a one-man blues project ... building to climax after climax."
But McKernan's hard-drinking life finally caught up with him. He was hospitalized with liver trouble in 1971 and his failing health caused himto leave the band for good in June 1972. On March 8, 1973, he was found dead in his apartment at age 27 of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage.
Keith Godchaux, the backup who filled in for the ailing McKernan in 1971, became his permanent replacement in 1972. A Seattle, Washington, native, Godchaux grew up in the East Bay area of Concord, California, and had played with Dave Mason before Garcia invited him into the Dead. Godchaux's wife, Donna, also joined the group.
Godchaux spent most of his first three years with the Dead on the road, then spent the next three years mostly on the sidelines as the band took a break. He filled the time with recording projects with his wife and Garcia. In 1978, the Dead hit the road again where Godchaux succumbed to anxiety. Bouts of depression and heavy drug use followed and, after a few shows where he nodded of at the keyboards and Donna sang off-key, both were booted out of the band in 1979.
Keith and Donna formed a new group, the Heart of Gold Band. After a night of rehearsals at the Dead's Front Street Studio, Godchaux and a friend drove from a toll plaza into the back of a flatbed truck. He died at age 32 two days later from injuries sustained in the crash.
Godchaux's place in the Grateful Dead had been taken by Brent Mydland, a Bay Area musical veteran who caught Garcia's attention as keyboardist for a band that Dead guitarist Bob Weir had put together for a solo project.
Mydland was a better fit for the band than his predecessor and contributed many songs to the Dead catalogue, including Far From Me, Easy to Love You, Tons of Steel and I Will Take You Home. During his tenure with the Dead, Mydland also took part in some of the band's many side bands.
On July 26, 1990, shortly after completing a summer tour with the Dead, Mydland died in his Lafayette, California, home of an accidental drug overdose. He was 37 years old.
Bruce Hornsby was a temporary fill-in on keyboards for the Dead until another Bay Area music veteran, Vince Welnick stepped in as Mydland's replacement. Welnick, a former member of avant garde group The Tubes, had also played for Todd Rundgren before joining the Dead.
In 1995, though, Welnick was diagnosed first with throat cancer, then emphysema. While he beat the cancer, the emphysema was more persistent. Coupled with the death of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia on August 9, 1995, Welnick was overcome by depression and attempted suicide while on tour with bandmate Bob Weir's RatDog Revue later that year.
Welnick left the band and never quite regained his footing. He died, apparently by suicide at his California home, at age 55 on June 2, 1996.
Ron "Pigpen" McKernan
Born: September 8, 1945
Died March 8, 1973 (age 27)
Born: July 19, 1948
Died: July 21, 1980 (age 32)
Born: October 21, 1952
Died: July 1, 1990 (age 37)
Born: February 21, 1951
Died: June 2, 2006 (age 55)
Here's McKernan performing his signature song:
Here's a rehearsal for Uncle John's Band that features Godchaux:
Here's Mydland performing Easy to Love You: