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Marty Balin

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Michelangelo claimed that he did not create a sculpture. Rather, the form was contained within the block of marble; he merely removed the excess, revealing the work of art. “I feel the same way about music, and about all the projects I’m involved in. The projects do themselves; the music comes through me.” The same vision Marty had when he launched the Jefferson Airplane is present today. In fact, nearly everything he has worked on over the years has been fueled with his vision of art and music as vehicles for expressing a positive message. “I still have the same attitude. “I still love the positive, uplifting songs, and I believe in songs with those qualities. I believe that music can help change the world for the better.”

Born Martyn Jerel Buchwald in Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 30, 1942, Marty was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area by parents Joe and Jean Buchwald. Joe became an important part in the ‘60s San Francisco music scene. As a lithographer, he was responsible for printing more than 200 different posters for shows at famous clubs like the Matrix, the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms. Jean started and kept the Jefferson Airplane scrap books featuring many of the photos and newspaper clippings that are exclusive to this site.

Growing up, Marty was always involved in art and music. He attended San Francisco State University, initially pursuing a career as a painter. After appearing in a production of West Side Story, Balin turned to music with the encouragement of his good friend Ralph’s brother, Johnny Mathis.

In 1962 Marty renamed himself Marty Balin and began recording with Challenge Records, releasing the singles “Nobody But You” and “I Specialize in Love”. They gained little attention, but his interest in music did not diminish and by 1963 Balin was leading a folk music quartet called The Town Criers, followed by a brief stint with the Gateway Singers in 1965.

Ultimately, Marty wanted to electrify the folk sound. “I wanted to play with electric guitars and drums, but when I mentioned that notion in clubs that I played, the owners would say, “We wouldn’t have you play here, not with drums and electricity. This is a folk club. So I decided to open my own club.” Balin opened the Matrix night club on August 13, 1965 featuring his new band, Jefferson Airplane.

Marty met singer/guitarist Paul Kantner at the local club the Drinking Gourd, and together they formed Jefferson Airplane. Initially a folk-rock venture, the group came to epitomize the psychedelic scene, scoring a gold record with their 1967 second album, Surrealistic Pillow. Although vocalist Grace Slick was the focal point of hits such as “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” Balin’s soulful tenor proved a pivotal element of their sound as well. He also wrote key compositions including “It’s No Secret” “Today,” “Comin’ Back to Me” “Plastic Fantastic Lover” “Share a Little Joke,” and “Volunteers.”

“Marty was the one who started the San Francisco scene,” says Bill Thompson, Balin’s roommate back in the mid-’60s and former manag­er of both the Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. “Back in those days Marty was quite the businessman” said Paul Kantner. “He was the leader of the band on that level. 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 and then he shied away from it. It became offensive to have to deal with it.”  “In my formative rock days, Bill Graham was my manager, and you couldn’t have a better teacher.” – Marty Balin

Marty was the founder and featured vocalist for Jefferson Airplane from 1965 to 1971. He appeared with the group during their performances at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Woodstock, and the disastrous Altamont Speedway concert in 1969. Balin was knocked unconscious by a biker from the Hells Angels motorcycle club while he was trying to save a couple of fans from being beaten by the Hells Angels. (This event was captured on film in the Rolling Stones’ documentary Gimme Shelter).

In 1971, after departing Jefferson Airplane, Marty produced an album for the Berkeley, California group Grootna, featuring vocalist Anna Risso and guitarist Vic Smith. In 1973 Grootna went through some personnel changes. Marty took over lead vocals, recording an album with the group under its new name Bodacious D.F.. In 1974, he contributed “Caroline”, to Dragon Fly, the first album released by Jefferson Airplane’s follow up group, Jefferson Starship. Marty joined Jefferson Starship permanently in 1975 for the second album, Red Octopus, featuring the hit “Miracles.”

“I wrote ‘Miracles’ about my girlfriend at the time, and also about the miraculous powers of Sai Baba. I went to Puttaparti with her and saw Sai Baba. We journeyed through the South Indian desert to the village; the song emerged from that darshan - that experience. When I wrote ‘Miracles,’ I had my love for my girlfriend and my love for Sai Baba, two very different forms of love running through me. So the song is about both of them. I picked up my guitar and I started singing ‘If only you believe, if only you believe like I believe, we’ll get by. The words flowed one after another, along with the music. I got the song written down in one draft, on a sheet of yellow paper.”

During 1978 Balin produced singer songwriter Jesse Barish’s first album, Jesse Barish. This album included Jesse own version of “Count on Me.”  “We had a great time. It was fun to work with my favorite writer on his first album. It was kind of a thrill to see him get the chance to put them all down in the studio.”

At the end of 1978, after several major hits including “Miracles,” “With Your Love,” “Count on Me,” and “Runaway” with Jefferson Starship, Marty left the band. In 1979 he co-produced Jesse’s follow-up album Mercury Shoes with producer John Hug. This album featured guitarist Johnny DeCaro who would become Balin’s guitar player in the early 1980s. Also during 1979, Marty produced a rock opera, Rock Justice, about a rock star who was put in jail for failing to produce a hit for the record company. The cast recording, produced by Balin, but not featuring him in performance, was released on EMI America. EMI then approached Marty about recording a solo album of his own.

In 1981, he released his first solo album, Balin, featuring two Top 40 hits. “Hearts” and “Atlanta Lady.” This was followed in 1983 by a second solo album, Lucky, along with a Japanese-only EP called There’s No Shoulder. After touring the world, Marty came home to San Francisco in 1984 and put together a new band featuring guitarist Mark “Slick” Aguilar.

Slick had played guitar with KC & the Sunshine Band, Wayne Cochran, Buddy Miles, and David Crosby. “Slick met me and said I’m your guitar player, and I told him I had a guitar player, and he said ‘No, I’m your guitar player’ and he gave me his number. He went back home and I was working with guitarist Johnny DeCaro at the time. Slick called me once a week and asked if I needed a guitar player and I’d say I have one. Then I had to let Johnny go and the next day Slick called me and said ‘Hey, you need a guitar player,’ and I said, ‘Ya know I need a guitar player.’ It was kind a funny.”

In 1985 Balin teamed up with Paul Kantner and Jack Casady to form the KBC Band.  “Paul left the Jefferson Starship. He was frustrated and upset with the current direction of the band. I told him to come over and rehearse with my band. So we’d rehearse my band in the day time, take a break and come back in the evening and rehearse with Paul and Jack. Then Paul went and got a contract with Arista for the KBC Band.” 

After the breakup of the KBC band, a 1989 reunion album and tour with Jefferson Airplane followed. “Until we walked out on stage for our first concert, it was the same old B.S.. After the first song, however, I just turned to Grace and it all came back to me suddenly ... and that thing we had between us came back. I started singing my songs right to her and making love to her on stage. The crowd went wild and it became a physical thing. The people who saw the live shows saw the real Airplane. We did not let down the legend.”

Balin exploded into the ‘90s with his new band, Wolfpack. “That was a good band. We went to Russia, toured around and played a lot of good gigs. Kerry Kearney played lead guitar and was a dynamite player.” Wolfpack also featured three women musicians, who doubled on harmony vocals including Marty’s wife Karen Deal on keyboards and vocals. During their U.S. tour, Balin recorded his third solo album, Better Generation.

In 1993, Marty reunited with Paul Kantner in Jefferson Starship - The Next Generation, and in 1997 he recorded a fourth solo album, Freedom Flight - followed in 1999  by Jefferson Starship’s Windows of Heaven. Also that same year Marty recorded the cover album, Marty Balin’s Greatest Hits, with guitarist Mark “Slick” Aguilar.

Marty, who is also an accomplished painter, entered the new millennium painting and exhibiting his work at various art galleries. He continued touring on and off with Jefferson Starship and released four albums of his own:  Nashville Sessions, Mercy of The Moon, Nothin’ 2 Lose, and Time For Every Season. In 2009 Balin spent the year on and off in the studio with Slick Aguilar recording new songs for the album Blue Highway (2010).

In late November 2009, co-producer Joe Vertino came to the studio with live tracks that he had recorded in 1985-86 of Marty playing various San Francisco Bay area clubs. The songs included “I Want You”, “Just A Dream”, “Boulevard”, and “Love Don’t Lie”, which were never recorded in the studio. After listening to the collection Marty knew what the next recording project would be.

“Let’s put together a band together and record a totally live album in the studio featuring these songs”. Co-producer Jim “Pinky” Beeman suggested guitarist Guy Walker, who then brought in keyboard player Tony Mania, Brian Snaps on Sax, and Rob Alexander on bass. Power house drummer Michele Silvia who played on the Blue Highway sessions was the obvious choice. A new session band was formed. Marty suggested rerecording a few other tracks as well – “The Witcher” (Bodasious DF), “Dream Motorcycle”, (KBC Band), “Sleep Walkin’”(Rowain Brothers), and “LA Girls” (Jesse Barish). The Witcher (2011) album was recorded in two days.

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