Marty Balin obituary

Marty Balin, far left, with members of Jefferson Airplane - from left, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady - in 1968.
Marty Balin, far left, with members of Jefferson Airplane - from left, Grace Slick, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady - in 1968. Photograph: AP

As a songwriter and one of the band’s lead singers, Marty Balin was a driving force in Jefferson Airplane. Balin, who has died aged 76, helped create the San Francisco psychedelic rock revolution of the mid-60s, and in his role as co-founder of the city’s Matrix club he gave valuable exposure to many other artists.

It was Jefferson Airplane’s second album, Surrealistic Pillow (1967), that alerted the wider world to the creative ferment erupting in San Francisco. While Balin did not write the album’s two hit singles, White Rabbit and Somebody to Love, he did contribute Today and Comin’ Back to Me, haunting songs indicative of his poetic, folk-influenced sensibility. He wrote material for the band’s subsequent albums After Bathing at Baxter’s (1967) and Crown of Creation (1968), and co-wrote the anthemic title track of Volunteers (1969), an album bristling with revolutionary fervour and ecological messages.

Balin’s sensitive tenor voice and knack for arresting melodies provided a valuable contrast to the group’s sometimes chaotic instrumental outpourings, which encompassed blues, rock and jazz styles. Jefferson Airplane’s appearances at the Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont rock festivals reinforced their profile as one of the pre-eminent bands of the 60s.

He left the Airplane in 1971, not least because of the band’s cocaine intake. “I personally just drank alcohol, but some of the chemicals made people crazy and very selfish, and it just wasn’t any fun to be around,” he said. He later joined its new incarnation, Jefferson Starship, writing and singing the track Caroline from the album Dragon Fly (1974). He wrote and sang on several Jefferson Starship hits, notably Miracles, a No 3 from the album Red Octopus (1975). Balin left the group in 1978 after recording the album Earth.

He was born Martyn Buchwald in Cincinatti, Ohio, the son of Jean (nee Talbot) and Joe Buchwald. Joe was the son of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe and worked as a lithographer. The family moved to California when Marty was four, and he attended Washington high school in San Francisco, and San Francisco State University.

In the early 60s he was cast in a local production of West Side Story, and was spotted by the singer Johnny Mathis, who urged him to pursue a singing career. In 1962 he changed his name to Marty Balin, and recorded a couple of singles for the Challenge label, which were unsuccessful, despite featuring Barney Kessel and Glen Campbell on guitars. Balin then became lead vocalist with a folk group, the Town Criers, and in 1965 was briefly a member of the Gateway Singers.

With the advent of the Beatles and the British Invasion, Balin decided to form an electric band, as well as a club in which it could perform. “I wanted to play with electric guitars and drums,” he said, “but when I mentioned that notion in clubs that I played, the owners would say, ‘We wouldn’t have you play here ... This is a folk club.’” With three other partners, he opened the Matrix Club at 3138 Fillmore Street, with Balin’s new band Jefferson Airplane playing at the club’s inaugural show on 13 August 1965.

The Matrix would become an important part of the burgeoning San Francisco music scene, and would host performances by the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Santana, Janis Joplin and many others. Balin’s father would print posters for Matrix gigs, as well as for shows at the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom, while his mother oversaw Jefferson Airplane’s scrapbooks.

Balin’s bandmate Paul Kantner commented that Balin was “quite the businessman … 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.”

Marty Balin in concert with Jefferson Starship in the Netherlands in the 1970s.
Marty Balin in concert with Jefferson Starship in the Netherlands in the 1970s. Photograph: Peter Mazel/Sunshine International/Rex/Shutterstock

Balin had first met Kantner at another San Francisco club, the Drinking Gourd, and they formed the original Jefferson Airplane with the singer Signe Toly Anderson, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, drummer Jerry Peloquin and bass player Bob Harvey. Within a few weeks, Peloquin and Harvey had been replaced by Skip Spence and Jack Casady. They signed with RCA, and their debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off appeared in 1966. Balin co-wrote most of the material, and was the sole composer of their first single, It’s No Secret.

By the time Surrealistic Pillow was released, Spencer Dryden had come in on drums and Anderson had been replaced by the forceful and charismatic Grace Slick. Her powerful mid-register voice made a potent counterpoint to Balin’s light, supple tone, and their vocal partnership became the band’s most identifiable trademark. Slick brought with her Somebody to Love and White Rabbit, songs originally performed by her previous band, the Great Society, and which gave the Airplane their only appearances in the Billboard Top 40.

After leaving Jefferson Starship, Balin co-wrote and produced the rock opera Rock Justice (1979), and pursued a solo career. He recorded 13 albums between 1981 and 2016. The first of these, Balin, was the most successful, reaching 35 on the US album chart and spinning off the singles Hearts and Atlanta Lady. In 1985 he formed the KBC Band with Casady and Kantner, and in 1989 he was part of the Jefferson Airplane reunion album and tour. He joined Kantner’s Jefferson Starship: The Next Generation project in 1993 and remained a member until 2003. In 1996 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Jefferson Airplane, and in 2016 he received a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

He is survived by his third wife, Susan Joy (nee Finkelstein); by a daughter, Jennifer, from his first marriage, to Victoria Martin, which ended in divorce; and by a daughter, Delaney, from his second marriage, to Karen Deal, who died in 2010.

• Marty Balin (Martyn Jerel Buchwald), singer, songwriter and musician, born 30 January 1942; died 27 September 2018