From Folk to Acid Rock, How Marty Balin Launched the San Francisco Music Scene

If you are of a certain age, you might remember Marty Balin as the founder of Jefferson Airplane. But he was much more influential in promoting the music of San Francisco in the 1960s, which led to the city being the epicenter of the Summer of Love 50 years ago. Balin began recording in 1962, and followed the wave of folk music that merged into rock music. But in the early days, San Francisco clubs wouldn't allow bands to use electric instruments, so Balin and his band The Town Criers played acoustically on "hootenanny nights" at the Drinking Gourd.    

It was a meager act, but Balin played those hootenanny nights for all he was worth, and that passion was enough to earn him a small following. “These nurses would come in and see me,” Balin remembers. “I guess they kind of liked what I did. One night, they brought their boyfriends, and after my set I joined them at their table. The boyfriends, who were engineers, were talking about how they each had $3,000 to invest and didn’t know what to do with the money. I immediately jumped in and said, ‘Hey, give it to me.’ They said, ‘What would you do with it?’ And I said, “I’d open a nightclub and put a band in it. You can have the nightclub, I’ll keep the band.’”

That may have seemed like a bold proposal coming from a nobody who was still covering Rod McKuen tunes, but Balin was one of those people who had a natural knack for making things happen. “I’m an Energizer Bunny,” he says, “a stimulator. I have ideas and then I get other people to show off their talents and abilities, too.”

The club, called The Matrix, opened to much fanfare with the house band Jefferson Airplane. The electric guitars drew record producers, and soon, a record contract. But that was just the beginning. Balin and Jefferson Airplane headlined the opening of Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium. Its success drew more musicians to San Francisco, who provided the soundtrack of the hippie generation. Hear the story of the San Francisco music scene from Marty Balin himself, as told to Collectors Weekly.  

(Image credit: Suki Hill)

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