Billy Taylor originally composed this gospel jazz song as "I Wish I Knew" in 1952. He was spurred to write the tune when his daughter Kim came home from school singing a spiritual.
Taylor recorded the tune as an instrumental with a big-band lineup of 19 musicians on November 12, 1963. Taylor's first recording of the song was done 10 days before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Once the lyrics were added, it became an anthem for the 1960s civil rights movement.
The musician's daughter Kim, who became a law professor in New York, told The Financial Times the story how her father's instrumental acquired lyrics.
"Dad initially recorded it as an instrumental. But, as I recall, he had written the first verse of the lyrics pretty early on. He got stuck at one point and invited [lyricist] Dick Dallas to collaborate to help him finish the lyrics and that's when we got the later verses. I've always felt that there was a difference between the first verse and the later ones. I think you hear my dad's voice most clearly in the first verse."
Nina Simone covered the song in her 1967 album Silk & Soul. The following year, a recording by Solomon Burke reached #68 in the US charts. Other artists that have recorded versions of the tune include John Denver (1969) John Legend & The Roots (2010) and Emeli Sandé (2012).
The tune is widely known in the UK as a piano instrumental version, used for Film…, BBC Television's long-running late night program about the cinema presented by Barry Norman. The version used by the BBC was recorded in 1967 by Taylor with a trio for his Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free album.
Coca-Cola used the song to soundtrack a feelgood 2004 TV advert featuring Basement Jaxx vocalist Sharlene Hector. The lyrics were changed to the more sentimental, "I wish I could share all the love that's in my heart."