Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones wrote this song. He told us: "'I Want To Know What Love Is' started off on more of a personal level. I'd been through a lot of relationships that eventually failed, and still searching for something that could really endure. And that sort of took a life of its own as well. It became more of a universal feeling. I adjusted that during the recording of it, and ended up putting a gospel choir on it. And you know, realized suddenly that I'd written almost a spiritual song, almost a gospel song. Sometimes, you feel like you had nothing to do with it, really. You're just putting it down on paper, or coming up with a melody that will bring the meaning of the song out, bring the emotion out in the song."
Jones' relationship that sparked the song was with his then future wife Ann Dexter-Jones. Ann Dexter-Jones had previously been married to Laurence Ronson, a music publisher who discovered the British group Bucks Fizz. Their oldest child is the successful producer Mark Ronson, the man behind Amy Winehouse's Back to Black album. Jones raised Ronson from the age of 7, providing a rich musical environment that led to his success. On Foreigner's 2009 album Can't Slow Down, Ronson produced a new version of Foreigner's 1977 track "Fool For You Anyway."
The New Jersey Mass Choir was brought in to sing the backing vocals. It was their first performance in a recording studio. The New Jersey Mass Choir released its own version of the song, which peaked at #37.
Foreigner recorded for Atlantic Records, and their 1981 album 4 spent more weeks at #1 than any album released by the label. Ahmet Ertegun, who was the head of Atlantic, cried when he first heard this song. Mick Jones explains: "Part of my dream at the beginning was to be on Atlantic Records, because of the heritage: all the R&B stars of the '50s, people like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. It meant so much to me and my growing up in music. So it meant a lot to have Ahmet Ertegun, who had been a part of that magical era and a person who I respected and looked up to, come into the studio. I took him aside and I said, 'I have a song to play you, Ahmet.' I took him into the studio, and we just sat there in two chairs, and I put the song on. Halfway through I looked over and indeed, there were tears coming out of his eyes. I thought, Whoa, this is a major moment for me. I've been able to impress this man who has heard some of the best, and produced some of the best music in the world. And here he is, and I've reached him emotionally. By the end of the song we were both in tears. Wonderful moments like that, they're just very meaningful."
Jennifer Holliday sang backup. She is an R&B singer who has sung for Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, and Barbra Streisand, among others. She starred in the play Dreamgirls.
Most of Foreigner's songs were co-written by Jones and their lead singer Lou Gramm
, but this was a solo composition for Jones, and a song that was not met with enthusiasm by Gramm, who felt it might push the band into adult contemporary territory and away from their rock base. Jones spoke to Billboard
magazine about Lou Gramm's reservations over this song: "If you look at our whole history, each album had a couple of ballads on it. I think that Lou aired his opinion about it at the time, and that's what led to people jumping on it as a reason for our differences. But I can never really think that having a worldwide #1 song would be detrimental to a band."
The video was directed by Brian Gibson, whose next project was the film Poltergeist II: The Other Side. The clip has an interesting concept, showing folks at their quotidian jobs during the day, then coming together to form the choir to this song.
Gibson later directed the films What's Love Got to Do with It (1993) and The Juror (1996). In 1998, he released a film called Still Crazy, featuring the song "The Flame Still Burns," co-written by Mick Jones and performed by the fictional band Strange Fruit. The song got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song.
In 2009 Mariah Carey covered this song for her second single from Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel
. When we asked Jones what he thought of her version, he said: "I think she's actually retained the integrity of the song. You know, the arrangement is very similar to the original. They haven't tampered with the song too much. She's captured a certain emotional thing, a feeling. And you know, it's always flattering to have people cover your songs. Well, sometimes not so flattering (laughs) depending on who it is. But I think she's put a lot of emotion into it. You can feel that she's gotten inside of the song." (Check out our interview with Mick Jones
Country star Kenny Chesney covered this for his 2016 album, Cosmic Hallelujah. It wasn't the first time a Nashville singer has recorded the tune - back in 2004 Wynonna Judd laid down a version for her album What the World Needs Now Is Love.