This was featured in the 1977 film Slap Shot. Elton began writing this song in 1975 in Los Angeles. Normally Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics first then Elton added the music, but in this instance Elton wrote the melody and most of the words as well, with Bernie finishing them off. As Elton explained, "I was sitting there and out it came, 'What have I got to do to make you love me.'"
Taupin added in a Music Connection interview: "I don't think he was intending on writing a song, but we were sitting around an apartment in Los Angeles, and he was playing around on the piano and he came up with this melody line, and I said, 'Hey, that's really nice.' For some reason this lyrical line, 'Sorry seems to be the hardest word' ran through my head, and it fit perfectly with what he was playing. So I said, 'Don't do anything more to that, let me go write something,' so I wrote it out in a few minutes and we had the song."
John and Taupin tried putting the music to the words on four songs for Elton's 1982 Jump Up album, and it didn't go well. Taupin has described those songs as a "disaster."
Bernie Taupin explained on his website: "Interesting thing about 'Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word' is that it's one of the rare occasions when Elton played me a melody line that inspired a lyric, as opposed to our routine of the lyrics always coming first. He was messing around on the piano one day and was playing something and asked me what did I think. It was actually pretty immediate, the title and the first couple of lines came into my head in a way that I guess I felt they were already there and just needed a little prompting.
It's a pretty simple idea, but one that I think everyone can relate to at one point or another in their life. That whole idealistic feeling people get when they want to save something from dying when they basically know deep down inside that it's already dead. It's that heartbreaking, sickening part of love that you wouldn't wish on anyone if you didn't know that it's inevitable that they're going to experience it one day."
The song was covered by Joe Cocker and is included on his Joe Cocker's Greatest Hits album. Artists who sang it in concert include Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Scott.
In 2002 the British boy band Blue, duetting with Elton John, took this song to the top of the charts. The song was Blue member Lee Ryan's all time favorite song and it was his idea to cover the track. When their record company persuaded Elton to appear on this, Blue thought he was just going to play the piano, but he asked to sing on the track as well. Ironically, Elton John signed a different band called Blue in the 1970s to his Rocket label and played piano on their albums. The original Blue unsuccessfully sued the 2000s Blue for use of their name.
It's likely that this was the last song Ray Charles ever recorded. Elton guested on Charles' 2004 album Genius Loves Company, where he joined Charles on a duet of "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word." Charles died on June 10, 2004, just months after this session. Elton explained: "I was finishing off my album in Los Angeles in March and Ray was making a duets album and I was scheduled to do a song with him, and I knew he was pretty sick. We arranged for him to come down to the studio in Los Angeles, but I wasn't prepared for how sick he was. He was so frail but so feisty and so adorable. I've kept all the outtakes of him talking to me, which I shall treasure forever and we just sat in two chairs and sang this song through two or three times. I think that was the last thing he ever did. It was the most upsetting day for me and uplifting day at the same time. People were crying in the control room... He was so weak."
A live version of this was featured on the B-side of Elton's 1987 live recording of "Candle In The Wind
In 2015, this was used in a TV commercial for Temptations Cat Treats
with the tagline, "Say Sorry for the Holidays."
The premise is that cat owners have been posing their cats in ridiculous costumes so they can get some social media photos out of it, but the cats hate this and now it's time to make it up to them with the treats.