Marty Balin, a founder of Jefferson Airplane, dies aged 76

Marty Balin died en route to a hospital. No cause of death was immediately available.
Marty Balin died en route to a hospital. No cause of death was immediately available.PHOTO: REUTERS

FLORIDA (THE NEW YORK TIMES) - 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 (Sept 27) in Tampa, Florida, where he lived.

He was 76. His death was announced by his wife Susan Joy Balin.

A representative, Ryan Romanesco, said Balin had died en route to a hospital. No cause of death was immediately available.

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 also nurtured bands and artists like the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Santana and Steppenwolf.

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. Jefferson 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 the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 and both the Woodstock and Altamont festivals in 1969.

 

At Altamont, 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, Balin was one of four lead singers, alongside Grace Slick, Paul Kantner and the band's lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.

That line-up 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; 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.

"I always let everybody else take the credit," 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 Balin sings his ballad Today, the camera shows Slick instead, who was mouthing the words with him. Balin quit Jefferson Airplane in 1971.

Yet he never entirely left behind his Jefferson Airplane bandmates. Jefferson Starship, a band formed by Kantner with Slick, featured 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 Balin.

Soon after leaving Jefferson Starship, an exhausted 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, Balin joined Kantner and Jefferson Airplane's bassist Jack Casady to make an album as the KBC Band. He also reunited with Slick, Kantner, Kaukonen and 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."

Balin sang with a new iteration of Jefferson Starship, which did not include Slick, from 1993 to 2003, and he occasionally worked with that band's shifting line-up 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 catalogue.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Jennifer Edwards and Delaney Balin, and two stepdaughters, Rebekah Geier and Moriah Geier.

In 2016, the year Jefferson Airplane received a Grammy lifetime achievement award, 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. The whole night is me - and if you dig it, cool," he said. "Let's get to the music, man. That's what I'm doing - just flying along."