Balin was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Catherine Eugenia "Jean" (née Talbot) and Joseph Buchwald. His paternal grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe. His father was Jewish and his mother was Episcopalian. Marty attended Washington High School in San Francisco, California.
In 1962, Buchwald changed his name to Marty Balin, by which name he has been known ever since, and began recording with Challenge Records, releasing the singles "Nobody But You" and "I Specialize in Love." By 1964, Balin was leading a folk music quartet called The Town Criers.
Balin was the primary founder of Jefferson Airplane, which he "launched" from a restaurant-turned-club he called the Matrix, and also one of its lead vocalists from 1965 to 1971. In the group's famous 1966-1971 iteration, Balin served as co-lead vocalist alongside Grace Slick and rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner. While his output diminished after Surrealistic Pillow (1967) as Slick, Kantner, and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen matured as songwriters (a process compounded by Balin's eschewal of the group's burgeoning "ego trips"), his most enduring songwriting contributions—which were often imbued with a romantic, pop-oriented lilt that was atypical of the band's characteristic forays into psychedelic rock—include "Comin' Back to Me" (a folk rock ballad later covered by Ritchie Havens and Rickie Lee Jones), "Today" (a collaboration with Kantner initially written on spec for Tony Bennett that was prominently covered by Tom Scott), and again with Kantner, the topical 1969 top-100 hit "Volunteers." Although uncharacteristic of his oeuvre, the uptempo "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover" (both written for Surrealistic Pillow) remained integral components of the Airplane's live set throughout the late 1960s.
In December 1969, Balin was knocked unconscious by Hell's Angels while performing during the infamous Altamont Free Concert, as seen in the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter. In April 1971, he formally departed Jefferson Airplane after breaking off all communication with his bandmates following the completion of their autumn 1970 American tour. He elaborated upon this decision in a 1993 interview with Jeff Tamarkin of Relix: "I don't know, just Janis's death. That struck me. It was dark times. Everybody was doing so much drugs and I couldn’t even talk to the band. I was into yoga at the time. I’d given up drinking and I was into totally different area, health foods and getting back to the streets, working with the American Indians. It was getting strange for me. Cocaine was a big deal in those days and I wasn’t a cokie and I couldn’t talk with everybody who had an answer for every goddamn thing, rationalizing everything that happened. I thought it made the music really tight and constrictive and ruined it. So after Janis died, I thought, I’m not gonna go onstage and play that kind of music; I don’t like cocaine."
Balin remained active in the San Francisco Bay Area rock scene, managing and producing an album for the Berkeley, California-based sextet Grootna before briefly joining funk-inflected hard rock ensemble Bodacious DF as lead vocalist on their eponymous 1973 debut. The following year, Kantner asked Balin to write a song for his new Airplane offshoot group, Jefferson Starship. Together they wrote the early power ballad "Caroline", which appeared on the album Dragon Fly with Balin as guest lead vocalist.
Rejoining the team he had helped to establish, Balin became a permanent member of Jefferson Starship in 1975; over the next three years, he contributed to four top-20 hits, including "Miracles" (number three, a Balin original), "With Your Love" (number 12, a collaboration between Balin, former Jefferson Airplane drummer Joey Covington and former Grootna lead guitarist Vic Smith), a cover of Jesse Barish's "Count on Me" (number eight), and N.Q. Dewey's "Runaway" (number 12). Nevertheless, Balin's relationship with the band was then beleaguered by manifold interpersonal problems, including Slick's longstanding alcoholism and his own reticence toward live performances. He abruptly left the group in October 1978 shortly after Slick's departure from the band.
In 1979, Balin produced a rock opera entitled Rock Justice, about a rock star who was put in jail for failing to produce a hit for his record company, based on his experiences with the lawsuits fought for years with former Jefferson Airplane manager Matthew Katz. The cast recording was produced by Balin, but it did not feature him in performance.
Balin continued with EMI as a solo artist, and in 1981, he released his first solo album, Balin, featuring two Jesse Barish songs that became top-40 hits, "Hearts" (number eight) and "Atlanta Lady (Something About Your Love)" (number 27). This was followed in 1983 by a second solo album, Lucky, along with a Japanese-only EP produced by EMI called There's No Shoulder. Balin's contract with EMI ended shortly after.
In 1985, he teamed with Paul Kantner and Jack Casady to form the KBC Band. After the breakup of the KBC band, a 1989 reunion album and tour with Jefferson Airplane followed.
Balin continued recording solo albums in the years following the reunion, and reunited with Kantner in the latest incarnation of Jefferson Starship.
Balin had intended to record lead vocals for two tracks for Jefferson Starship's album, Jefferson's Tree of Liberty. However, his art touring schedule conflicted with studio sessions, and instead, the track "Maybe for You," from the German release of Windows of Heaven, was included.
On July 2, 2007, the music publishing firm Bicycle Music, Inc. announced that it had acquired an interest in songs written or performed by Balin, including hits from his days with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship.
Balin has also enjoyed painting all his life. He has painted many of the most influential musicians of the last half of the 20th century. Marty Balin's Atelier is located at 130 King Fine Art in Saint Augustine, Florida, Balin's permanent signature collection gallery.
Marty Balin resides in Florida and San Francisco with his wife, Susan Joy Balin, formerly Susan Joy Finkelstein. Together they have Marty's daughters Jennifer Edwards and Delaney Balin, and Susan's daughters Rebekah Geier and Moriah Geier.
Balin was married to Tampa musician Karen Deal from 1989 until her death in 2010. Karen is the mother of Marty's daughter, Delaney, born in 1995.Other appearances