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.