Tragedy hit the Grateful Dead in March 1973 when founding member Ron 'Pigpen' McKernan died. McKernan had been the band's original keyboard player, and also played harmonica, percussion and occasional guitar. He also often took lead vocal spots, usually on the band's blues material. He had struggled with alcoholism, so that over the years his contributions had lessened. Nevertheless he was given a feature vocal spot in most concerts, with his 20-minute renditions of "Turn On Your Love Light" being particularly legendary.
Their next record therefore was conceived as a tribute to McKernan. History Of The Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear's Choice) came out four months after his death. Like the two that came before it, it was a live album, its recordings dating back to 1970 (and so not featuring then-current member Keith Godchaux). Side one consisted of a selection of the acoustic material that they often opened their concerts with - four performed by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir (including a cover of The Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Suzie"), and one performed solo by McKernan on guitar (Lightnin' Hopkins' "Katie Mae"). Side two was with the full band, both numbers with McKernan in the lead vocal spot - Otis Reddings' "Hard To Handle" and a seventeen-minute jam of Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning".
Though it wasn't really the best live album the band had put out, and didn't accurately represent what they sounded like at that stage, that wasn't the point. It was a respectable tribute to a much-loved member who would be sorely missed by both the band and their fans.
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