Marty Balin, a Founder of Jefferson Airplane, Dies at 76
Sept. 29, 2018
Marty Balin, left, with other members of Jefferson Airplane in 1968. From left: Mr. Balin, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady.Associated Press
Marty Balin, a founder, lead singer and songwriter of the groundbreaking San Francisco psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane and a key member of that band’s 1970s successor, Jefferson Starship, died on Thursday in Tampa, Fla. He was 76.
His death was announced on Friday by his wife, Susan Joy Balin. A representative, Ryan Romanesco, said Mr. Balin, who lived in Tampa, had died en route to a hospital. No cause of death was given.
Mr. Balin was a prime mover in the flowering of psychedelic rock in mid-1960s San Francisco, not only as a founding member of Jefferson Airplane in 1965, but also as an original owner of the Matrix, a club that opened that year and nurtured bands and artists like the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Santana and Steppenwolf.
Mr. Balin’s voice could offer the intimate solace of ballads like Jefferson Airplane’s “Today,” the siren wails of a frantic acid-rocker like the group’s “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” or the soul-pop entreaties of Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles.”
Jefferson Airplane would earn its place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with music that was the epitome of 1960s psychedelia: a molten, improvisatory mixture of folk, rock, blues, jazz, R&B, ragas and more, sometimes adopting pop-song structures and sometimes exploding them. The songs were about love, freedom, altered perception, rebellion and possibilities that could be transcendent or apocalyptic.
The Airplane was a staple at the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York City, and it performed at 1960s milestones, including Monterey Pop in 1967 and both the Woodstock and Altamont festivals in 1969. At Altamont, Mr. Balin tried to break up a brawl between an audience member and the Hells Angels security force, only to get knocked unconscious.
In Jefferson Airplane’s prime, Mr. Balin was one of four lead singers alongside Grace Slick, Paul Kantner and the band’s lead guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen. That lineup could generate fervent harmonies and incendiary vocal duels in songs like “Volunteers” or “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds.”
But it also led to increasing friction within the band; Ms. Slick was often singled out for attention, and she sang lead on “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” the 1967 hits that made the band national headliners.
Mr. Balin performing with Ms. Slick in 1970 on “The Dick Cavett Show.”ABC Photo Archives/ABC, via Getty Images
“I always let everybody else take the credit,” Mr. Balin told High Times magazine in 2000. “Grace was the most beautiful girl in rock at the time, so they gave her credit for everything.”
In the documentary film “Monterey Pop,” when Mr. Balin sings his ballad “Today,” the camera instead shows Ms. Slick, who was mouthing the words with him. Mr. Balin quit Jefferson Airplane in 1971.
Yet he never entirely left behind his Jefferson Airplane bandmates. Jefferson Starship, a band formed by Mr. Kantner with Ms. Slick, featured Mr. Balin as a guest in 1974 and reached its commercial peak when he became a full member in 1975; he wrote and sang Jefferson Starship’s biggest hit, “Miracles.” (Jefferson Starship evolved into the hit-making 1980s band Starship without Mr. Balin.)
Soon after leaving Jefferson Starship, an exhausted Mr. Balin turned down an offer to become lead singer of a new San Francisco band: Journey. Instead, he went on to a solo career in the 1980s, beginning with the 1981 album “Balin.”
In 1987, he joined Mr. Kantner and Jefferson Airplane’s bassist, Jack Casady, to make an album as the KBC Band. He also reunited with Ms. Slick, Mr. Kantner, Mr. Kaukonen and Mr. Casady to tour and record as Jefferson Airplane in 1989.
“We went out and did 36 shows, and I thought we were dynamite,” he told High Times. “At the end, we finished, and everyone said, ‘This was great,’ then split apart. Everybody went home. Nobody calls anybody, nobody says anything. Same old band.”
Mr. Balin sang with a new iteration of Jefferson Starship, which did not include Ms. Slick, from 1993 to 2003, and he occasionally worked with that band’s shifting lineup in later years. But he also continued to record and perform regularly with his own band, and late in 2015 — 50 years after Jefferson Airplane began — he released “Good Memories,” new versions of songs from the Airplane catalog.
Marty Balin was born Martyn Jerel Buchwald in Cincinnati on Jan. 30, 1942, the son of Joe and Jean Buchwald. His father was a pressman for a printing company. The family moved to California when Martyn was 4 years old and eventually settled in San Francisco.
He was drawn to the arts, including acting, sculpture, dancing and singing, and made his first professional recordings in 1962: four pop songs on two singles for the small Challenge Records label, which renamed him Marty Balin.
In 1963-1964, he was a member of the Town Criers, a folk-revival group. But the sound of the Beatles gave him ambitions toward folk-rock, and he gathered band members: first Mr. Kantner and eventually a lineup that included Mr. Kaukonen, Mr. Casady, Skip Spence on drums and Signe Anderson on vocals.
Mr. Balin speaking at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles in 2015.Rebecca Sapp/WireImage, via Getty Images
With financial help from his father and other partners, Mr. Balin opened the Matrix in 1965, designing the stage to accommodate a six-member band. Jefferson Airplane was the first band to play there, and it went on to perform frequently at the club, both on its own and as a backup band for visiting bluesmen. It was the first psychedelic San Francisco band to sign to a major label, RCA, and it released its debut album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” in 1966.
Grace Slick replaced Ms. Anderson, and Spencer Dryden took over the drums from Skip Spence before the release of the second Jefferson Airplane album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love. “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love” — two songs Ms. Slick brought to the band — became Top 10 hits. (Mr. Kantner and Ms. Anderson died in 2016, Mr. Dryden in 2005 and Mr. Spence in 1999.)
For Mr. Balin, Jefferson Airplane was focused on live performance, not commercial formula. “We got to a place where the music was playing us, we weren’t playing it,” he told Relix magazine in 1993. “That’s where you want to get to. And from the first note you hit, no matter where you are, even in the biggest hall in the world, from the first note of the first song, you know at that moment you are there or you’re not.”
Mr. Balin stayed with Jefferson Airplane through three more studio albums that have endured as psychedelic touchstones: “After Bathing at Baxter’s,” “Crown of Creation” and “Volunteers,” for which he and Mr. Kantner wrote the title track. Yet the escalating tension within the band, along with his sorrow at the death of a friend, Janis Joplin, in 1970, led to his departure from Jefferson Airplane in 1971.
Mr. Kantner invited Mr. Balin to complete a song that became “Caroline” on Jefferson Starship’s 1974 album, “Dragon Fly,” with Mr. Balin on lead vocals. He joined the band as a full member in 1975 and was its frontman for pop successes including “Miracles,” “Count on Me,” “Runaway” and “With Your Love” before leaving in 1978.
His first solo album, “Balin,” included two Top 40 hits, “Hearts,” and “Atlanta Lady (Something About Your Love),” which were both written by a friend, Jesse Barish. And as Mr. Balin continued to move in and out of Jefferson Airplane’s and Jefferson Starship’s projects, he continued to record solo projects, most recently the album “The Greatest Love” in 2016.
While touring in 2016, he experienced chest pain and received open-heart surgery at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. Afterward, he sued the hospital over care during his recovery, when he lost a thumb and a vocal cord was paralyzed. But in 2018 he said that he had recovered enough to continue writing songs and making music.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Balin is survived by two daughters, Jennifer Edwards and Delaney Balin, and two stepdaughters, Rebekah Geier and Moriah Geier.
In 2016, the year the Jefferson Airplane received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Mr. Balin told Relix magazine that he was happy leading his own acoustic band.
“People want to hear me sing, and now that’s what I’m doing; I’m just singing,” he said. “The whole night is me — and if you dig it, cool. Let’s get to the music, man. That’s what I’m doing — just flying along.”
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 30, 2018, on Page A28 of the New York edition with the headline: Marty Balin, 76, Singer in Jefferson Airplane, Dies. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe