Marty Balin was the lead singer and founder of Jefferson Airplane. Marty’s very distinctive, soulful voice became one of the hallmarks of the Airplane’s sound, and he composed many of the band’s most memorable songs, including Volunteers, It’s No Secret, Coming Back to Me and Today.
Marty was born Martyn Jerel Buchwald on January 30, 1942, in Cincinnati, OH, to Joe and Catherine Buchwald. He has an older sister. In the early 1950s, the family moved to San Francisco. He joined a gang called the Lairds, but also found time to sing and dance in a production of West Side Story.
At age 19 or 20, Marty decided to become an artist, but after doing some painting and sculpting, he became a singer, drawing on inspiration from rhythm and blues singers. In 1962, he signed to the Challenge label, which attempted to market him as a teen idol; on his manager’s advice, he took the surname Balin after the Bal Theater in San Leandro, CA. While at Challenge, Marty recorded two singles, Nobody But You and I Specialize in Love.
Around this time, Marty married and had a daughter, Jennifer Ann (born 1963). To accommodate his new family, Marty cut his hair and went to work with his father as a lithographer. But the marriage ended by 1965.
In 1964, Marty joined the Town Criers, a clean-cut folk combo, which folded after about a year. By early 1965, Marty was broke and living with a friend, Bill Thompson. It was at that point that Marty told Bill he planned to form a band with five guys and a girl, playing folk music with electric instruments.
Marty began to seek out new players for his band. He introduced himself to a guitarist/banjoist who was playing at a folk hangout called The Drinking Gourd. The musician, Paul Kantner, saw the potential in Marty’s idea and agreed to join his band. For the next three months, he auditioned musicians. By July, they had their band, Jefferson Airplane. A month later, the band debuted at the opening of the Matrix club, of which Marty was a part-owner.
As the recognized leader, Marty called the shots for the group. In typical San Francisco fashion, however, he seemed to rely on instinct as much as on any thought-out plan. When original drummer Jerry Peloquin was sacked, Marty brought in his replacement, Alex “Skip” Spence, who had never played drums professionally — Marty thought he “looked like a drummer.” (As it turned out, Skip was a quick study.) Marty later was responsible for firing Skip when the latter failed to show up at rehearsals.
Marty was also the Airplane’s chief songwriter. He wrote the first single, It’s No Secret (1966), as well as most of the material on the first two albums. But when the band broke big in 1967, it was newcomer Grace Slick who became the star. Marty’s rivalry with Grace became very intense — according to some sources, he did not care for her unorthodox singing and sexy stage antics. From mid 1967 onwards, Marty’s status within the band declined — not only was he eclipsed by Grace, but his romantic ballads drew heavy criticism from guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady. His songwriting credits diminished, but he still managed to write or co-write several Airplane classics, including Today (1967), Share a Little Joke (1968), and Volunteers (1969).
At a concert on November 28, 1970, Marty played his last show with the Airplane.
Marty divides his time between Florida and Mill Valley, CA. He is married to Karen Deal and has a second daughter, Delaney Mariah Skye (born 1995).
Text copyright 1998 Greg Gildersleeve.