This was written by songwriting team of Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. According to Mojo magazine, Reid got the idea from a newspaper article about a guy who got drunk and shot up his girlfriend's car. When the judge sentenced him and asked him what he had learned, the guy said, "You can't make a woman love you if she don't."
The judge was expecting something along the lines of, "I can't shoot stuff because I'm angry."
The song is about a woman who knows her man has lost interest and just wants to spend one more night with him before moving on with her life. Instead of lying to herself or trying to work things out, she confronts the reality and seeks closure with that final night together. In the morning, she'll be on her way.
Reid and Shamblin began writing this song with a faster tempo; it came together when they slowed it down. When they completed the demo, they thought it might be a good fit for Linda Ronstadt, but the song ultimately went to Raitt, who loved it on first listen. "It was absolutely one of the most honest and original heartache songs I had ever heard," she told the Los Angeles Times. "It was a point of view that I had been on both sides of, and it struck me deeply. I knew immediately I wanted to sing it."
Getting the news that someone doesn't love you anymore is devastating, but Raitt feels that delivering it is worse.
Many artists have recorded this song over the years in a variety of styles. The jazz singer Nancy Wilson was one of the first, taking it to #87 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in 1994. Boyz II Men reached #75 on that chart with their 2009 version.
The song reached its highest chart position in the UK in 1997 when a cover by George Michael released as a double A-side alongside "Older" peaked at #3. Another charting version in the UK was by Adele, whose live rendition climbed to #37 in October 2012 (this version was originally included on iTunes Festival: London 2011, an EP of songs released in the wake of her 2011 iTunes Festival appearance).
Prince included the song on his 1996 album Emancipation, and Priyanka Chopra did an EDM version that made #28 on the Dance chart in 2014.
This is likely the most popular song written by an All-Pro NFL star. Co-writer Mike Reid was a star defensive tackle at Penn State and was drafted seventh overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1970. He made two Pro Bowls before quitting football in 1975 so he could pursue music. It was a good career move: he became a top songwriter in Nashville, and also a prominent artist, with a #1 Country hit, "Walk on Faith," in 1990.
That's Bruce Hornsby, who had hits with "The Way It Is
" and "The Valley Road
," on piano. Raitt describes his playing on this song as "Bill Evans meets the hymnal."
Introducing this song on his 1996 MTV Unplugged special, George Michael said: "This next song is one of my favorite songs ever. Written... actually I'm not sure who wrote it. But it's sung by a wonderful lady called Bonnie Raitt."
Mike Reid, who co-wrote the song, thought this was pretty funny. It worked in his favor, as many listeners checked to see who did write the song.
Producer Don Was told Spinner UK the session for this song stands out for him as a time when he stood back and watched greatness come out. Said Was: "We knew this was a great song; we had Bruce Hornsby in there playing piano with her. But when she connected to this thing, I don't even know how to describe it. But I guess it's like someone hooking you up to an electrical current; it was a physical experience to sit there and listen to it as it was going down there in the studio. And it was incredibly emotional. The only thing we ever had to change was a couple of lines where she started sobbing while she was singing. It was just an emotional thing, and she connected to the core of the song, and it was magnificent. And you can hear it today. It's tough for me to listen to that record today and not get really emotional. And I can't even relate to the song. It's, like, a woman's song. It's not what the song is about that gets me, it's some indescribable thing about the raw emotion in her performance."
A version by The Voice contestant Josh Kaufman reached #71 on the Hot 100. Kaufmann is a soul singer and singer-songwriter from Indianapolis, Indiana.
Saturday Night Live opened their February 13, 2016 show with a skit that revolves around this song. Hillary Clinton had recently lost the New Hampshire primary to Bernie Sanders, so in the bit we see people in a restaurant talking about how they admire Clinton, but like Sanders better. Kate McKinnon, portraying Clinton, appears in spectral form crooning this song as she wonders what she has to do to win them over.
Carrie Underwood performed this song at her American Idol audition, where we learned that she loves Martina McBride and can cluck like a chicken. She went on to win the competition and become the best-selling Idol alum in history.
The Nashville session singer Scat Springs sang on this song's co-writer Mike Reid's 1991 solo album. Springs' daughter, Kandace, grew up to be a popular jazz singer signed to Blue Note records, and when she released a covers album in 2020 called The Women Who Raised Me
, she included "I Can't Make You Love Me."
"I've been doing that song since I used to play at the lounge at the Marriott in downtown Nashville as a teenager," Kandace told Songfacts
. "I heard it as a kid driving around in the car with my mom, and it's always been one of my absolute favorite songs. I don't think there's a more emotional lyric anywhere. It moves me every time."