Marty Balin, founder of 1960s group Jefferson Airplane, dies at 76

Jefferson Airplane in 1968. From left, Marty Balin, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. (AP)
September 29 at 10:19 AM

Marty Balin, a patron of the 1960s “San Francisco Sound” both as founder and lead singer of Jefferson Airplane and co-owner of the club where the Airplane and other bands performed, died Sept. 27 in Tampa. He was 76.

He died while en route to a hospital, spokesman Ryan Romenesko said. The cause of death was not immediately available. Mr. Balin, who underwent emergency heart surgery in 2016, sued a New York hospital earlier this year, saying a tracheotomy he had at the time paralyzed a vocal cord and caused other damage.

The dark-eyed, baby-faced Mr. Balin was an ex-folk musician who formed the Airplane in 1965 and within two years was at the heart of a nationwide wave that briefly rivaled the Beatles’ influence and even helped inspire the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.

The Airplane was the breakout act among such San Francisco-based artists as the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, many of whom played early shows at the Matrix, a ballroom Mr. Balin helped run and for which the Airplane served as house band.

The San Francisco Sound was a psychedelic blend of blues, folk, rock and jazz and was the musical expression of the emerging hippie lifestyle.

Mr. Balin himself was known for his yearning tenor on the ballads “Today” and “It’s No Secret” and on the political anthem “Volunteers.” In the mid-1970s, when the Airplane regrouped as the more mainstream Jefferson Starship, Mr. Balin sang lead on such hits as “Miracles” (which he co-wrote), “With Your Love” and “Count on Me.” He later had solo success with “Hearts” and “Atlanta Lady.”


Jefferson Airplane in 1966. At top right is vocalist Grace Slick. From left are Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner, Spencer Dryden and Jack Casady. (AP)

The Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, but Mr. Balin would long have mixed feelings. Pride in the band’s achievements was shadowed by its eventual breakup and by Mr. Balin’s acknowledged jealousy of Grace Slick, the other lead vocalist. Slick joined the group in the fall of 1966, soon before the Airplane recorded its landmark second album, “Surrealistic Pillow.”

One of rock’s most charismatic singers and performers, Slick displaced Mr. Balin as the perceived leader, on stage and on the Airplane’s best known songs, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”

“Every time I did something, it was always Grace Slick and the Airplane and Grace Slick and the Starship,” Mr. Balin told Relix magazine in 1993. “Even if it was my voice. I’ve even done songs of mine on my own and people come up to me and say, ‘I’m surprised you do that song. I always thought it was Grace’s.’ For a while that hurt my feelings, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Fellow Jefferson Airplane founding member Jorma Kaukonen said Friday that Balin had himself to blame at least partly for that, adding that the singer never liked to draw attention to himself.

“He was a good guy, he was a friendly guy, he just wasn’t openly gregarious,” Kaukonen said.

Mr. Balin was married twice, most recently to Susan Joy Finkelstein, and had three children.

He had been in show business well before the Airplane. Born Martin Jerel Buchwald in Cincinnati, he ended up in the Bay Area as his father, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, struggled to find work.

Mr. Balin was a brooding, artistic child who dropped out of San Francisco State University to pursue a career in music. He recorded a few singles with some of Phil Spector’s session musicians in the early 1960s before joining the folk group the Town Criers. During that time, he changed his last name to Balin.

Like many of his peers, he switched to electronic music after seeing the Beatles’ 1964 movie “A Hard Day’s Night.” Through the club scene, he brought in songwriter-guitarist-vocalist Paul Kantner, singer Signe Anderson (whom Slick replaced), guitarist Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady and drummer Skip Spence, a novice given the job because he supposedly looked like a rock star. (Spence would leave after the first album and was replaced by Spencer Dryden). The name Jefferson Airplane, suggested by Kaukonen, was based in part on bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Meanwhile, Mr. Balin and a handful of business partners converted a Fillmore Street pizza place into the Matrix, which opened in August 1965. A year later, the group signed with RCA Records and released the folk-rock album “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” for which Mr. Balin wrote or co-wrote eight songs. The Airplane, attuned early on to the counterculture, turned out buttons and bumper stickers reading “Jefferson Airplane loves you.”

“I remember it was really pretty and beautiful for a year or two,” Mr. Balin told Relix in 1993. “And then Time magazine came out and they were interviewing me. I told the guy, ‘It’s great that you’re publicizing this beautiful-feeling scene out here,’ ” and he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Fastest way to kill it.’ ”

Starting with “Surrealistic Pillow,” a soundtrack for many during the so-called Summer of Love of 1967, the group’s music became more experimental. By such albums as “Blows Against the Empire” (a solo effort) and “After Bathing at Baxter’s,” Kantner became the principal songwriter (and eventually Slick’s boyfriend), and Mr. Balin found himself out of place with his own band and with the rock scene overall.

He shunned hard drugs and preferred tight pop songs to long jams. The classic film “Gimme Shelter,” centered on the ill-fated Altamont concert from 1969, showed Mr. Balin getting knocked out on stage by the Hell’s Angels. By the early 1970s, he had left the Airplane.

In recent years, he released such albums as “The Greatest Love” and “Good Memories,” a retrospective of his Airplane/Starship songs. He also reunited on occasion with Casady and Kaukonen and their group Hot Tuna, bringing Signe Anderson on stage to perform the Airplane’s first single, “It’s No Secret.”

He also returned to his folk roots, appearing in clubs as part of an acoustic trio.

“The whole night is me — and if you dig it, cool,” he told Relix in 2016. “There aren’t any egos. . . . Let’s get to the music, man. That’s what I’m doing — just flying along.”

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