Marty Balin, founder of Jefferson Airplane, dies at 76
By HILLEL ITALIE
AP National Writer
Sunday, September 30
NEW YORK (AP) — Marty Balin, a patron of the 1960s “San Francisco Sound” both as founder and lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane and co-owner of the club where the Airplane and other bands performed, has died. He was 76.
Balin died Thursday in Tampa, Florida, on the way to the hospital, spokesman Ryan Romenesko said. The cause of death was not immediately available.
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.
“We knew he had some health problems, but he really didn’t talk about it at all and we never pressed him,” fellow Jefferson Airplane founding member Jorma Kaukonen said following a show with his band Hot Tuna on Friday night in Massachusetts. “His passing to me at least was sudden and unexpected.
“He was certainly one of the greatest voices of my time,” Kaukonen continued. “His intense commitment to song and music, it just never abated.”
The dark-eyed, baby-faced 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” 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 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 the musical expression of the emerging hippie lifestyle.
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, 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.”
The Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, but Balin would long have mixed feelings. Pride in the band’s achievements was shadowed by its eventual breakup and by 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, she displaced 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,” he 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.”
Kaukonen said Friday that Balin had himself to blame at least partly for that, adding 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. He recalled that Balin always carried himself with “quiet dignity” while other members of the band could be “loudmouths.”
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.
Marty 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 ’60s before joining the folk group the Town Criers. He also changed his last name to Balin.
Like many of his peers, Balin 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 Cassidy and drummer Skip Spence, a novice given the job by Balin 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, 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 “The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” for which Balin wrote or co-wrote eight songs. The Airplane, attuned early on to the counterculture, turned out buttons and bumper stickers reading THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE LOVES YOU.
“I remember it was really pretty and beautiful for a year or two,” Balin told Relix magazine 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” and “After Bathing at Baxter’s,” Kantner was the principal songwriter (and eventually Slick’s boyfriend) and 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 Balin getting knocked out on stage by the Hell’s Angels. By the early ’70s, he had left the Airplane.
‘It was a period of cocaine then — everybody took cocaine. And people I would work with, they would yell at you and it got intense. The Airplane was on that kind of trip,” he told songwritersuniverse.com in 2018.
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 old band mates, whether appearing in concert with Casady and Kaukonen and their group Hot Tuna, or bringing Signe Anderson on stage to perform the Airplane’s first single, “It’s No Secret.”
And he liked returning to his folk roots, doing club performances as part of an acoustic trio.
“The whole night is me — and if you dig it, cool,” he told Relix in 2016. “And I’m having fun. I move wherever I want, from one song I want to another. There aren’t any egos and (we are free from) people’s problems — waiting for somebody to light a cigarette, have a drink or change guitars and organize their music. Let’s get to the music, man. That’s what I’m doing — just flying along.”
Associated Press Writer John Rogers in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
Julie Andrews, Richie Sambora & Sarah McLachlan among supporters of 3rd Annual Kids Music Day
Philadelphia/PA – The 3rd Annual “Kids Music Day” will be celebrated on Friday – October 5th, 2018. Each year, Keep Music Alive partners with music schools, music retail and other music organizations worldwide to spotlight the importance of including music in children’s education. Events held by participating locations include open houses, instrument petting zoos, student music performances, community/family jams, instrument donation drives and more. It is estimated over 500 locations worldwide will help celebrate Kids Music Day in 2018.
This year, a number of celebrity artists are showing their support for Music Education by joining the inaugural class of Kids Music Day Ambassadors including:
- Julie Andrews, Richie Sambora, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Sarah McLachlan, Victor Wooten,
- Mandy Harvey, Jim Brickman, Bernie Williams, Siedah Garrett, Orianthi, Alma Deutsher,
- Todd Rundgren, Jan Hammer, Damien Escobar, Amy Holland, Charlie Worsham
Kids Music Day is also being supported this year by CASIO EMI, Alfred Music, Remo, Conn-Selmer, and Kala Brand Music, all leaders in the music industry. Casio has been manufacturing quality keyboards for consumers and professionals alike for nearly forty years, while Alfred Music has been in the music publishing business since the early days of Tin Pan Alley. The REMO name has been synonymous with quality drums and percussion equipment for over 60 years. Conn-Selmer is the leading manufacturer & distributor of musical instruments for student, amateur and professional use. Kala Brand Music has quickly made a name for itself with quality ukulele instruments played by both professionals and amateurs. Kids Music Day is also being supported by Advantage Rent-A-Car, a full-service company operating from 40 airports and five additional satellite locations in Hawaii and Las Vegas hotels. Keep Music Alive is honored to welcome these partners helping to share the Kids Music Day message inspiring more kids to begin their musical journey.
Kids Music Day is one of two international music holidays founded by the organization Keep Music Alive. In March 2018, the organization partnered with over 600 music school and music retail locations in all 50 states, Canada and 10 additional countries to offer free lessons to new students (kids and adults) as part of the 3rd Annual Teach Music Week. Some of the largest music school chains in the U.S. and Canada have participated in Kids Music Day and Teach Music Week with many of their locations including Music & Arts, Guitar Center, Kindermusik, Music Together, Gymboree, Long & McQuade, Bach to Rock and the legendary School of Rock.
Keep Music Alive is a national 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to promoting the value of music. Our goal is to inspire more kids and adults to enjoy the educational, social and therapeutic benefits of playing music. For more information please call (610) 874-6312 or visit www.KeepMusicAlive.org and www.KidsMusicDay.org .