The band performed at all three of the most famous American rock festivals of the 1960s—Monterey Pop Festival(1967), Woodstock (1969) and Altamont (1969)
Their recordings were internationally successful. Famous songs "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", are listed in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time".
The founder of the group that became Jefferson Airplane was 23-year-old vocalist Marty Balin. Balin met folk musician Paul Kantner at a local club. After hearing female vocalist Signe Toly Anderson he invited her to be the group's co-lead singer. Kantner next recruited an old friend, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Drummer Jerry Peloquin and acoustic bassist Bob Harvey completed the original lineup.
The origin of the group's name is often disputed. "Jefferson airplane" is slang for a used paper match split to hold a marijuana joint that has been smoked too short to hold without burning the fingers - an improvised roach clip. Urban legend claims this was the origin of the band's name, but according to band member Jorma Kaukonen, the name was invented by his friend Steve Talbot. A 2007 press release quoted Kaukonen as saying:
"I had this friend [Talbot] in Berkeley who came up with funny names for people," explains Kaukonen. "His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, 'You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!'
A few weeks after the group was formed, Jerry Peloquin departed, in part because of his disdain for the others' drug use. Although he was not a drummer, singer-guitarist Skip Spence was then invited to replace Peloquin. In October 1965, after the other members decided that Bob Harvey's bass playing was not up to par, he was replaced by guitarist-bassist Jack Casady.
The group's performing skills improved rapidly and they soon gained a strong following in and around San Francisco, aided by reviews from veteran music journalist Ralph J. Gleason, the jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle who, after seeing them at the Matrix in late 1965, proclaimed them "one of the best bands ever." Gleason's support raised the band's profile considerably, and within three months their manager Matthew Katz was fielding offers from recording companies, although they had yet to perform outside the Bay Area.
Signe Anderson gave birth to her daughter in May 1966, and in October she announced her departure from the band. Her final gig with the Airplane took place at the Fillmore on October 15, 1966. The following night, her replacement Grace Slick made her first appearance.
Slick was asked to join Jefferson Airplane by Jack Casady, whose musicianship was a major influence on her decision. Slick proved pivotal to the Airplane's commercial breakthrough—she possessed a powerful and supple contralto voice that complemented Balin's and was well-suited to the group's amplified psychedelic music, and as a former model, her good looks and stage presence greatly enhanced the group's live impact.
Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.