Remembering Marty Balin, Jefferson Airplane/Starship Singer

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Marty Balin

The co-founding vocalist of Jefferson Airplane, who later sang with the offshoot Jefferson Starship, then launched a solo career, Marty Balin, died September 27, 2018, in Tampa, Fla., at age 76. The cause of death was not revealed but it was reported that he died en route to a hospital. Earlier in the year, he had sued a New York hospital for allegedly botching a surgical procedure.

Balin started the Airplane in 1965 at a San Francisco coffeehouse with guitarist/singer Paul Kantner (who passed in 2016), guitarist/singer Jorma Kaukonen, singer Signe Anderson (who died the very same day as Kantner), and a bassist and drummer who left the group in its infancy. Bassist Jack Casady joined in 1965, as did drummer Skip Spence, who was replaced the following year by Spencer Dryden. Grace Slick replaced the pregnant Anderson that year as well.

With that classic lineup, Balin and Kantner co-wrote many of the Airplane’s best known songs, but by 1970 Balin had become disgruntled and left the band, after having released five studio albums and a live set. He and the band had by that time risen to become one of the most popular American rock acts, the only band to play the three best-known festivals of the era: Monterey Pop, Woodstock and the ill-fated Altamont (see the clip below).

Balin’s soaring tenor was heard on Airplane rockers like “It’s No Secret,” “Plastic Fantastic Lover” and “Volunteers,” and on the group’s romantic ballads such as “Today” and “Comin’ Back to Me.”

In 1974, Balin contributed his song “Caroline” to the newly formed Jefferson Starship’s Dragon Fly album and he joined that band the following year, singing on the #1 Red Octopus album the following year (including the top 5 hit “Miracles,” which Balin wrote). By 1978, having also sung on the hits “With Your Love,” “Count on Me” and “Runaway,” he left that band for a solo career, scoring a top 10 single with “Hearts” in 1981. He remained a solo artist throughout the rest of his career, although he occasionally rejoined Kantner in reconstituted lineups of Jefferson Starship and participated in the only Airplane reunion, in 1989.

In August 2018, Balin announced that he was suing a New York hospital for a botched surgery that left him unable to sing.

Balin’s passing was confirmed by his publicist, Michael Jensen, who emailed the following statement from Balin’s wife, Susan Joy Balin, and his family:

Marty had a historic career as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, and platinum and gold solo artist. Balin also enjoyed painting all his life. He painted vibrant, large-scale portraits of many of the most influential musicians and good friends Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jerry Garcia, to name a few.

Marty’s fans describe him as having had a substantial impact for the better of the world: “One of the greatest voices of all time, a writer of songs that will never fade, and founder of the quintessential San Francisco band of the sixties.” His music is known for being the soundtrack to all of life’s monumental moments.

Listen to Jefferson Starship’s 1975 Top 5 hit “Miracles,” sung by Balin

Born Martyn Jerel Buchwald in Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 30, 1942, Marty was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area by parents Joe and Jean Buchwald.

Related: Jefferson Airplane members recall Woodstock

“Marty was the one who started the San Francisco scene,” said the late Bill Thompson, Balin’s roommate back in the mid-’60s and former manag­er of both the Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship.

Photo of Jefferson Airplane from 1966 via Marty Balin’s Facebook page. Balin is fourth from left.

The Jefferson Airplane, initially a folk-rock venture, came to epitomize the psychedelic scene, scoring a gold record in 1967 with its second album, Surrealistic Pillow. The album was named one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine.

Balin’s soulful tenor proved a pivotal element of the group’s sound. He also wrote key compositions including “It’s No Secret” “Today,” “Comin’ Back To Me” “Plastic Fantastic Lover” “Share a Little Joke,” and “Volunteers.”

“Back in those days Marty was quite the businessman” said Paul Kantner, who passed away in 2016. “He was the leader of the band on that level. He was the one who pushed us to do all the business stuff, orchestrating, thinking ahead, looking for managers and club opportunities. He was very good at it.”

Related: When the Airplane auditioned for Phil Spector… “Man, let’s get out of here!”

At the end of 1978, after contributing several major hits including “Miracles,” “With Your Love,” “Count on Me” and “Runaway” with Jefferson Starship, Marty left the band. In 1981, he released his first solo album, Balin, featuring two top hits, “Hearts” and “Atlanta Lady”. Marty’s solo career proved to be as successful as his past music endeavors.

Marty was survived by his wife Susan Joy Balin, daughters Jennifer Edwards and Delaney Balin, and stepdaughters Rebekah Geier and Moriah Geier.

“Marty and I shared the deepest of love—he often called it Nirvana—and it was. But really, we were all touched by his love. His presence will be within my entire being forever.” —Susan Balin

“Daddy was daddy.” —Delaney Balin

Watch Balin and the Airplane perform “House at Pooneil Corners” live on a New York City rooftop in 1968

Related: An interview with Balin on the year 1967

Bonus video: In this famous clip from the Altamont concert film Gimme Shelter, Balin jumped off the stage to confront Hells Angels who were beating concert-goers

Jeff Tamarkin

3 Comments so far

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  1. Marty
    #1 Marty 28 September, 2018, 20:37

    Jefferson Airplane was my first favorite band and Marty Balin was a big reason. Saw the band a half dozen times and was never disappointed, except for the fact that they didn’t play often enough. R.I.P. and sing with the angels.

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  2. Rollbert
    #2 Rollbert 28 September, 2022, 10:08

    The guy could sing the yellow pages and still make it sound good. Met him at Sausalito fair about 87. He tried to tell me where the Matrix was once located in San Francisco.

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  3. Jmack
    #3 Jmack 28 September, 2023, 11:45

    He had a beautiful voice and surrealistic pillow is absolutely one of the greatest albums ever recorded

    Reply this comment

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