The Enduring Legacy of Foreigner’s ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’
By 1984 Foreigner were enjoying the fruits of rock stardom, while also discovering the baggage that came with them. The group’s first four albums -- Foreigner, Double Vision, Head Games and 4 -- had combined to sell over 20 million copies in the U.S. alone. Despite this success, Mick Jones felt engrossed by behind-the-scenes stress.
“I’d been through a divorce, and met someone else who I was going to marry,” the guitarist explained to Classic Rock. “There’d been turmoil in the band through the huge pressure of selling millions of albums, and me and Lou [Gramm] were entering a cold-war situation. I’d just come back to England from New York and was happy to be in touch with my roots. So it was an emotional time that stirred up a lot of things.”
During an especially restless night, Jones sat at his keyboard and wrote the initial pieces of “I Want to Know What Love Is.” The rocker knew he’d stumbled upon something big and woke his sleeping fiancee to play her the tune. “I said, ‘I’ve got this great idea.’ I had the first two chords of the intro and the title,” the rocker detailed in a 2013 conversation with UCR. “And she said, ‘Well, what’s it called?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s called ‘I Want to Know What Love Is.’ She looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean you want to know what love is? We’re about to get married!’ [Laughs] ‘Don’t you know what love is?’”
As Jones began working with his fellow Foreigner bandmates on the track, he began envisioning a grand, overwhelming sound. “I was still looking for ways to enhance it in a spiritual way,” he recalled. “I’d even considered approaching Aretha Franklin.”
Instead, a music industry friend suggest the New Jersey Mass Choir. “They came in and it was an awesome two or three hours in the studio," Jones told us. "I had never conducted a gospel choir before! [Laughs] They were nervous, and I remember that just before we wrapped it up with the final take, we all got together in a circle and said the Lord’s Prayer, and it was such a moment. I think my mother was actually in the studio too. Everybody was in tears and we rolled the tape and they nailed it the first time.”
Released as a single in November of 1984, “I Want to Know What Love Is” steadily climbed the charts, peaking at No. 1 on Feb. 1, 1985. Since then, the track has been embraced as one of the biggest ballads in rock history, with a bevy of artists covering and sampling the work.
Here are 34 different incarnations of "I Want to Know What Love Is."
New Jersey Mass Choir (1985)
The choir that was featured on the Foreigner track recorded their own version, also released in 1985. It found success in the gospel community and even appeared on what Billboard then called the “Hot Black Singles chart” (it is now called the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart).
Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder, George Michael and more (1985)
On May 5, 1985 the Apollo Theater in New York celebrated its 50th anniversary with a star-studded musical performance. The evening, titled “Motown Salutes the Apollo,” was televised and featured Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder, Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, George Michael and more. The evening ended with all of the performers coming on stage for a rousing rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Big Daddy (1985)
A comedy rock band from Los Angeles, Big Daddy developed a cult following in the '80s thanks to their unique interpretations of modern rock and pop tunes. Their rockabilly version of “I Want to Know What Love Is” was featured on the group’s 1985 LP Meanwhile… Back in the States.
Gloria Gaynor (1986)
Singer Gloria Gaynor is best-known for her disco hits, including the timeless 1979 track “I Will Survive.” Her 1986 LP The Power of Gloria Gaynor featured the vocalist covering a selection of other artists’ hits, including Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and -- of course -- Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
London Symphony Orchestra (1990)
Since 1978 the London Symphony Orchestra have made a habit of releasing classical interpretations of some of rock’s vaunted hits. Their recording of “I Want to Know What Love Is” was featured on the 1990 LP Love Classics.
Shirley Bassey (1991)
The singer behind classic James Bond songs “Goldfinger,” “Moonraker” and “Diamonds Are Forever,” Shirley Bassey remains one of the most distinct voices in music. Her version of “I Want to Know What Love Is” was first released on Keep the Music Playing, a covers album that saw the vocalist reinterpreting material from a wide swathe of artists.
Rita Coolidge (1992)
Another former Bond song singer -- her effort was for 1983’s Octopussy -- Rita Coolidge released “I Want to Know What Love Is” as part of her 1992 album Love Lessons.
Jahmark and the Soul Shakers (1995)
More than 20 years after Foreigner originally released the track, “I Want to Know What Love Is” was turned into a reggae tune thanks to Jahmark and the Soul Shakers. The Jamaican group reimagined the classic rock track as a breezy island jam, released on Thump Records’ 1995 compilation album Thump’n Reggae Jamz.
Tina Arena (1997)
Australian singer-songwriter Tina Arena released her fourth studio album, In Deep, in 1997. The LP hit No. 1 in her homeland and sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. Most of the album was made up of original material, save for Arena’s pop version of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Rappers Against Racism (1998)
This socially conscious hip-hop group sampled the rock classic in the chorus of their 1998 single “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” While the Foreigner original focussed on romantic love, Rappers Against Racism repurposed the words to deliver a message of hope for humanity.
Barrio Boyzz (2000)
Following the success of boy band New Kids on the Block music industry executives looked to develop a Latin pop group following the same model. Enter Barrio Boyzz, a five-piece vocal outfit who released eight albums between 1992 and 2001. The group saw moderate chart success during that time, including a collaboration with Selena which hit No. 1 on the Hot Latin Tracks chart. Their sixth album, Destiny, featured a cover of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Memphis Bleek (2000)
New York rapper Memphis Bleek sampled “I Want to Know What Love Is” for his 2000 track “In My Life.” The song was featured on the album The Understanding, which was certified gold for sales over 500,000 copies in the U.S.
We get it. You’ve come this far on our list of “I Want to Know What Love Is” covers but still find yourself asking, “Where’s a version that incorporates Gregorian chants?” Well, your prayers have been answered, thanks to this rendition recorded by the group Auscultate.
Jamaican reggae singer Ghost took his turn covering “I Want to Know What Love Is” in 2002, when he covered the track for his LP Under the Moonlight.
Wynona Judd (2004)
Country music legend Wynonna Judd covered “I Want to Know What Love Is” for her 2003 album What the World Needs Now Is Love. Her cover would be released as the fourth single from the LP, peaking at No. 14 on the Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks chart.
Julio Iglesias (2006)
Iconic Spanish singer Julio Iglesias has released 53 studio albums over his prolific career. His 50th LP, 2006’s Romantic Classics, saw the vocalist release English language covers of a variety of tunes, including Wham’s “Careless Whisper,” the Cars’ “Drive” and two Foreigner songs - “I Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Clay Aiken (2006)
Most music fans remember Clay Aiken as the second place finisher on Season Two on American Idol. While Aiken went on to release six studio albums, he also enjoyed a stint on Broadway and, more recently, has ventured into the world of politics. His cover of “I Want to Know What Love Is” came in 2006, part of his gold-selling LP A Thousand Different Ways.
David Phelps (2008)
A successful recording artist in the world of Christian music, David Phelps has released 12 solo studio albums over the course of his career. His 2008 covers album The Voice featured a rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Mariah Carey (2009)
Pop icon Mariah Carey released her version of “I Want to Know What Love Is” in 2009. Her cover received praise from Jones. "I think she's actually retained the integrity of the song,” the guitarist noted in an interview with Songfacts. “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.” The rocker went on to applaud Carey’s emotion on the tune. “You can feel that she's gotten inside of the song."
Alvin and the Chipmunks (2009)
Released in 2009, the part-live-action part-computer-animated film Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel featured the high-pitched titular characters singing a bevy of classic tunes. While the original Foreigner version of “I Want to Know What Love Is” actually appears in the film, this Chipmunks' rendition was included on the official soundtrack.
Leela James (2009)
This soulful rendition, delivered by R&B vocalist Leela James, appeared on the singer’s 2009 album Let’s Do it Again.
French Montana (2010)
Moroccon-American vocalist French Montana initially achieved underground celebrity in the early '00s thanks to his skilled quickness and free-flowing verses as a battle rapper. From there, the young MC began churning out mixtapes. His 11th effort, Mac & Cheese 2, was released in 2009 and featured a song called “In My Life” which used a sample of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” in its chorus.
Rock of Ages (2012)
For the 2012 film adaptation of the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, Tom Cruise played the role of a self-indulgent rock star Stacee Jaxx. The actor delivered a duet of “I Want to Know What Love Is” alongside Malin Akerman during a scene in which their respective characters battle with their attraction for one another.
Terry McDermott (2012)
Terry McDermott was the runner-up in the third season of the reality singing show The Voice. The Scottish-American vocalist performed “I Want to Know What Love Is” twice on the show, in Round Six and the season finale. McDermott’s version of the track was released as a single, peaking at No. 84 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Modern Family (2013)
In a 2013 episode of the long-running sitcom Modern Family, characters Claire and Phil Dunphy attempt to one-up each other with their wedding anniversary gifts. Phil plans to serenade Claire with a surprise performance at the local fair -- that is until Phil is overshadowed by the local pharmacist who jumps up on stage and sings like a seasoned pro. The pharmacist was played by Rick Cowling, a professional singer who has performed alongside Kenny Loggins and the rock band Ambrosia.
In Season Five of the musical comedy TV show Glee, character Mercedes (played by Amber Riley) delivers a soaring rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is” alongside her church’s choir.
Ryan Adams (2014)
Rocker Ryan Adams covered “I Want to Know What Love Is” during an appearance on NPR’s World Cafe. The performance earned praise from Jones. "I happened to write that song you just did a cover on," he wrote, "and I just wanted to say a few words about it. I think you've really done it proud. I think it's great to hear your voice on it. I've been a fan of yours for a long time, and I turned the rest of the guys onto you. I love it, man. Great organ sound, too. So, bravo."
Swedish indie rock group Amason released their haunting version of “I Want to Know What Love Is” in 2016 as part of the California Airport Love EP. The song’s cinematic music video earned the group a nomination at the Grammis (Swedish Grammy Awards).
Kenny Chesney (2016)
Country superstar Kenny Chesney tipped his hat to Foreigner with a hidden track on his 2016 album Cosmic Hallelujah. Cut 12 on the LP -- which is not denoted in the track listing or liner notes -- is a chugging, twangy interpretation of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Kelly Clarkson (2016)
As an American Idol winner, platinum selling artist and talk show host, Kelly Clarkson has a rather impressive resume. In 2016, the singer performed a series of covers on Facebook, dedicating her version of “I Want to Know What Love Is” to the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting before launching into her beautiful rendition.
Foreigner with Nate Reuss (2016)
In the summer of 2016, ABC launched its short-lived series Greatest Hits. The show brought together artists from different eras to deliver unique performances. Its third episode featured Foreigner collaborating with Nate Reuss from Fun. "It was so exciting for us to collaborate with Nate," Jones said of the experience, adding that he considered Reuss “one of the best voices in today's music scene."
Pickin' On (2017)
Since the early 1990s, CMH Records has created an ongoing series of tribute albums titled Pickin’ On. The releases feature bluegrass and country interpretations of music from a wide variety of other genres, most notably rock. In 2017 the group released Pickin’ On the Biggest Hits of the ‘80s Volume 2, which featured their unique version of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Ane Brun (2017)
Norweigian singer/songwriter Ane Brun released her folk-pop version of “I Want to Know What Love Is” as part of her 2017 album Leave Me Breathless. In addition to the Foreigner classic, Brun covered artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Radiohead and Mariah Carey on the LP.
The Darcys (2018)
A duo from Toronto, the Darcys have developed a growing fan base thanks to their blend of pop arrangements and rock sensibilities. In 2012 they covered Steely Dan’s entire Aja album, an effort that earned equal parts criticism and praise. The group’s cover of “I Want to Know What Love Is” was recorded in 2018 during an appearance on SiriusXM Canada.