Jefferson Airplane co-founder Marty Balin dies at 76

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Marty Balin at the Grammys in 2016.
Marty Balin at the Grammys in 2016. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Marty Balin, a singer-songwriter guitarist who was quietly at the core of the foundational psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, has died of undisclosed causes at the age of 76. After leaving the band, Balin rejoined for a second run as Jefferson Starship.

Born in Ohio, Balin headed out west for a solo career that made few waves before he met folkie Paul Kantner and formed the core of what became Jefferson Airplane. When they hired singer-songwriter Grace Slick away from their sometime opener the Great Society, Jefferson Airplane quickly rose to international fame as one of the signature bands of the Summer of Love and the psychedelic era.

While Balin didn't write or sing lead on most of the group's best-known songs, he was a strong presence on classic albums like Surrealistic Pillow (1967). Balin was a core member of the group for landmark performances at events like the Monterey Pop Festival, and was knocked unconscious by Hell's Angels at the infamous Altamont Free Concert.

Distraught at the deaths of friends like Janis Joplin amidst the San Francisco scene's pervasive drug culture, Balin left the Airplane in 1971. He returned in 1975 when Kantner and Slick formed a successor group, Jefferson Starship. While not as influential, the new group was more commercially successful than Jefferson Airplane; its hits included Balin's "Miracles," which hit the top five in 1975.

During the Jefferson Starship era, Balin earned a unique and indelible place in pop-culture lore: he led the band for "Light the Sky on Fire," a song performed for an Imperial officer in the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).

Balin didn't participate in the band's next iteration, simply called Starship, but returned to his solo career and hit the top ten in 1981 with "Hearts." By the '90s, he had largely stepped away from the music world in favor of painting.

In 1996, Balin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Jefferson Airplane. "The adventurous Airplane took unprecedented liberties on record and in concert," reads their Rock Hall bio.

"Kantner came from a folk background, Kaukonen was a blues aficionado, Casady grew up playing R&B and Dryden boasted a background in jazz training. Balin was a pop crooner, and Slick's tastes were literary and offbeat. These various strands, brought together in the heady, experimental cauldron of San Francisco in the mid-Sixties, made for an electrifying union that moved rock music a few giant steps forward."


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