Chuck Morrongiello was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 19, 1960. We met on the occasion of the release of The Greatest Love (2016), the last album by Marty Balin (January 30, 1942 - September 27, 2018), the legendary American musician who is known for being the lead singer, composer and founder of the band Jefferson Airplane. Chuck was the last guitarist that Balin had ... and if one thing is certain it is that Marty knew a lot about music and knew how to choose his musicians - the best - until the end of his brilliant and amazing career.
Whether it's with his 1977 B.C Rich Mockingbird or his Custom Made Martin (built by the same luthier who made a dozen instruments for Eric Clapton), it's a pleasure to listen to Chuck with one of his favorite guitars in his hands. Because Chuck 'Little Django' Morrongiello is passionate about everything he does, from music to his first adventure as an actor and director of his first film that has just premiered, Amityville: Mt Misery Road.
Chuck is currently recording 21 new songs for a double album, and will be in the studio with producer Joe Vertino on May 24. One of those songs is a tribute he wrote for Marty Balin, which talks about his relationship with Marty, his bond and love for music and writing together with him. He is also preparing a medley of his greatest hits for a night under the Florida moon with Sue Balin, Marty's wife, and his friends, as a musical tribute to the life of his dear friend.
Once again it has been a great pleasure to catch up with Chuck Morrongiello, an incredible artist and sincere friend of Guitars Exchange and, on this occasion, it seemed to us de rigueur to ask him for a portrait of Marty Balin. Smiles and tears have not been lacking.
GE: What was Marty Balin like as an artist and guitarist?
CM: Marty played an acoustic 6-string guitar, way back in the 60s. A lot of what he wrote was on that acoustic. The band would go in and listen the first guitar track, and then layer around it, and at the end he would probably just take out his guitar...He wrote Miracles on his acoustic guitar, you know, with the Starship…so Marty, as far as an acoustic guitar player, is probably one of the best rhythm guitar players, actually IS the best guitar player I’ve ever played with. I always told him that and he would always laugh at me. If you go on his tapes, on YouTube, you can see him having a slap, so he a natural strum slap, strum slap, strum slap, which is...if you listen carefully to it from the Iridium in New York, and you listen to it from Seattle, we were playing in Seattle over there, with the trio, you can actually hear this slap in perfect time, and it’s y‘know like a snare of a drummer, and it’s just amazing. Sometimes it would just be so flowing fluently, and then it would into a syncopated, a little bit off, and then come back to the track.
As a guitar player, playing with strict players that play rhythm, a Django Reinhardt rhythm...Marty wasn’t really, he would play strict, but sometimes he would go off, because when he would sing he would feel the singing with his acoustic guitar with that slap and we would follow him. In the beginning it was a little bit hard to do that, but I knew what he was going after, and I started to feel that being straight all the time is not really the greatest…
On our first takes we didn’t have no drummer, it was just his slap that kept us in time. So it’s a very interesting style of playing that he started as a folk musician. He was one of the first guys to start that playing that folk guitar back in San Francisco. That slap which I learned to play as a lead guitar player, especially on my acoustic, I was overwhelmed by it, I loved his playing...we wrote The Greatest Love album, then I started bringing these Airplane songs to him and he would say I don’t even remember playing them, and that was on the Good Memories album...it was the 50 years of his greatest hits.
So as far as a musician, I think he was an incredible guitar player. He wrote incredible lyrics, as you know he was the king of love songs…
GE: What was he like as a man and a friend?
CM: When I met Marty he already had history through the Airplane, he’s already been retired 3 or 4 times, he was about 68 years old at the time, so through the Airplane he wrote a lot of the songs and lyrics, through the Starship he wrote Caroline, Miracles,..I used to go over to his house to learn some of the old stuff, but when I started collaborating he passed me lyrics...Losing You Baby was the first composition I wrote for him...once I had that collaboration with him, he then came to me again with the lyrics for You're Making Me Crazy, and Rollerball..and some of the other songs, but then there were times when I had, like Always is on there, we would go back and forth, he with the lyrics and I would show him a hook...so as far as the collaboration, to answer your question, I’d show him music, and he would write the lyrics, or he would give me lyrics, and I would write the music.
In 2016 we were ready to play The Cutting Room in Manhattan, when the night before I got phone call saying we needed to cancel the gig Marty is not doing well, and Marty had had basically a heart attack, ...which was very sad, all the shows for 2016 were canceled and for 6 months we were on tenterhooks, waiting to see what was going happen with our musical friend. Me and Lloyd Goldstein started doing things on the side waiting for Marty to get better, and about 6 months we went to see him at his house and, Marty was...well I started crying when I saw him...this was my musical friend that every Sunday for 6 or 7 years I was there writing songs with him, so me and Lloyd started playing our songs for him. He then came to me said “Chuck I want you to come over next Sunday and we can rekindle our magic that we were writing”.So the next Sunday he gave me the lyrics to a blues song and told me to do what I wanted with it...it was a song that stood out, he liked it, and I called it Peace, it was a statement song about what’s happening in the world, where people are crazy and violent and stuff, and there should be peace in this world, and I sung it for him because Marty couldn’t really sing, because of his kidney dialysis, and he had part of his thumb on his left hand missing and part of his tongue missing, because they botched the surgery...I was literally devastated to see my musical friend tortured. It was a Frankenstein botch job, they left the needle too long in his left hand, and left that thing in his mouth too long which started this black tongue, to one of the greatest singers in the world.
We collaborated closely on what I call the Peace album, about 15 songs, his writing the lyrics and I the music, because Marty can’t play the guitar ever again..because his thumb was missing on his left hand. So now the great guitar player, rhythm guitar player, can’t play with the slap anymore...and has problems trying to get his vocal chords back where they were; we almost lost him.
Over the 2 years ...there was the Peace song and then a beautiful ballad that I had written musically but when didn’t have lyrics to it and it came out as Really Love, an amazing piece with the lyrics that he wrote are just beautiful. [ ] So the record was finished, we brought some black chick singers, and Marty says to me let’s use a 6th bass, and I had no idea what this was...it was used during the 60s on Beach Boy songs like Good Vibrations [ ] and I found out that Jack Bruce from Cream used it, and George Harrison used it...it has this kind of baritone sound that is very beautiful, so I started using it, so we put it on every song.
And it was just beautiful, we had Lloyd playing the base, me playing the 6 bass, and all the guitar work and Marty singing...
Over the last 8 years or so Marty would give me CDs of Jesse Barish, a friend of his, who wrote Hearts and Count On Me, so Jesse would send Marty tapes of his songs and Marty would turn them into hits. [ ] Marty wanted to put this album out with Jesse’s songs, and he wanted me to produce it, with beautiful ballads and great rock songs that Jesse wrote, and took them and put them in my own twist, Marty wanted it in my style because Jesse’s more relaxed and folky and Marty wanted more power to it. I played my part through a Stratocaster and a BC Rich Mockingbird and I layed down my acoustic tracks with my Martin...so the album was 15 songs by Jesse Barish, they were great tunes.
The last time I saw Marty was when we were doing bongo tracks with the drummer, adding his bongo tracks, so I gave him a hug saying let’s get back to laying some bass guitar on fire tracks and other guitar parts, and he says take your time, we’re going to do it right, and I say no problem man…
The next I heard was that Marty was in the hospital with pneumonia, and he actually started to recover, but on the morning of September 27th that Marty passed away and I was in shock, devastated that the world had lost one of the greatest iconic singers as far as rock & roll history.