Marty Balin was a founder of Jefferson Airplane and later a stalwart member of Jefferson Starship, the successor band. In later years he occasionally regrouped with members of the band on various projects but he was content to pilot his solo career.
Balin passed away recently at the age of 76. From the Airplane days, he was proceeded in death by Paul Kantner, Signe Anderson, Skip Spence and Spencer Dryden. Balin continued to entertain late in life, overcoming health issues to play pursue what he loved doing.
“Back in those days Marty was quite the businessman. 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.” —Paul Kantner (bandmate)
Here’s what a few of his other guitarist/bandmates said about him.
Craig Chaquico: “Unlike many singers, Marty was really open to having me play guitar as much as I wanted around his vocals. That’s pretty unusual and not necessarily a good formula for hit pop songs although they seemed to work well with Marty and I on the same page. Songs such as ‘Miracles,’ ‘Runaway,’ ‘Count on Me,’ ‘With Your Love,’ all seemed to have signature guitar licks as well as plenty of room for extra guitars to share the musical spotlight. Again, that’s a rare case with a lot of singers and lead guitar players but Marty encouraged me to play guitar as if it were a duet, and I was another singer, matching and answering the lyrics only in the language of music, mood and melody.”
Jorma Kaukonen: “Had it not been for him, my life would have taken an alternate path I cannot imagine. He and Paul Kantner came together and like plutonium halves in a reactor started a chain reaction that still affects many of us today. It was a moment of powerful synchronicity. I was part of it to be sure, but I was not a prime mover. Marty always reached for the stars and he took us along with him.”
Balin often sang ballads and mid tempo songs, but he lent his voice to some of the hardest rocking songs of Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship (“Crown of Creation”, “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, “Volunteers”, “Dance with the Dragon”, “Young Girl Sunday Blues”, “3/5 of a Mile In 10 Seconds”). Balin could sing sweetly about love or he could shift it into overdrive.
Having several lead singers, vocal duties were split between Balin, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner. Balin acknowledged the friction in the group including the attention that Slick got, even when it was Balin who sang lead on a song. In 1971, Balin had enough and quit the Airplane.
After a few years, as the Airplane went into the hanger, Kantner and Slick began a new venture and asked Balin to sing lead on “Caroline” a song written by Kantner and Balin for Dragon Fly (1974), the first album from Jefferson Starship.
The next year, the band recorded Red Octopus, and Balin joined the band full-time. The album went to number one on the Billboard chart and spawned several hit singles, including “Miracles”. That album was followed by Spitfire and Earth, both big selling albums.
Balin departed the group in 1978. He recorded several solo albums, had a couple of charting hits, produced a rock opera, formed the KBC band with Kantner and Jack Casady, and mostly followed his own path. The Airplane reunited in the late 1980’s for an album and tour, but that was the end of the classic lineup. Balin would work with Kantner on occasion and even appeared with original singer Signe Anderson. Balin embraced the past but was not defined by it.
A couple of years ago I found a Florida address and wrote to Balin. He nicely responded and enclosed a DVD of one of his performances, which I was surprised to receive. Give him a microphone and a guitar, and he did his thing. That thing spanned six decades.
Rest in peace, Marty.