Inside Tracks #20: Mick Jones & Foreigner, "I Want to Know What Love Is" 1984 w/Covers by NJ Mass Choir, Wynonna Judd (w/Jeff Beck), Kenny Chesney, Nate Ruess
It got some blowback from at least one band member, but through the years, it's garnered some fascinating covers (totaling an exact gross aka 12 dozen aka 144!), some from surprising corners.
'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.
Foreigner guitarist, Mick Jones, who wrote “I Want to Know What Love Is” in 1984, was previewing his demo to Atlantic Records Chairman, Ahmet Ertegun. While this may not have been the first time a label head was moved to tears by an artist’s song, Jones at least knew he had all the support he needed.
After Ertegun surprised Jones with his emotional reaction, he 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.”
The group’s lead singer, Lou Gramm (who was also a frequent co-writer with Jones on Foreigner songs), was not entirely impressed by Mick’s latest offering, fearing it might end up landing the band dangerously close to MOR-land.
For a group who routinely topped AM pop charts while simultaneously enjoying FM classic rock cred, the Adult Contemporary lane was not where Gramm thought Foreigner should drive, and he feared Jones’s new power ballad would steer them right to that spot.
Plus, there’s always been a dispute between Jones and Gramm about the publishing percentage for the song. Gramm claims he contributed far more to the song than Jones felt he did. It’s high-dollar publishing drama at the top, if you’re interested: UltimateClassicRock.com has the details and the Gramm and Jones quotes from May 2022.
As Jones told Songfacts: “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 whom I respected and looked up to, come into the studio.”
Jones recounted the genesis of his song in 2013 to ClassicRockMagazine.com: “I always worked late at night, when everybody left and the phone stopped ringing. “I Want To Know What Love Is” came up at three in the morning sometime in 1984. I don’t know where it came from. I consider it a gift that was sent through me. I think there was something bigger than me behind it. I’d say it was probably written entirely by a higher force.
“The song was an expression of my tempestuous private life over the three years before,” Jones continued. “I’d been through a divorce, and met someone else who I was going to marry. There’d been turmoil in the band through the huge pressure of selling millions of albums [1981’s 4 for one, which sold 6 million+ copies in the U.S. alone, and was #1 worldwide], and me and Lou 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.
“That night I only managed the title, the opening chords and the chorus,” Jones added, “but that was enough to make me go into the bedroom where my soon-to-be wife was asleep and tell her I had an idea for a song called ‘I Want To Know What Love Is.’
“She just fixed me with this strange look and said [offended]: ‘What do you mean? Don’t you already know what love is?’ I dragged her into the studio to hear it, which must say something: You always know when you’ve got something strong, and this song definitely moved me.”
Jones was happy enough with the song to submit it to Gramm, bassist Rick Wills and drummer Dennis Elliott for Foreigner’s upcoming Agent Provocateur album [produced by Jones and Alex Sadkin, in a recording ordeal which took nine months]. “But I was still looking for ways to enhance it in a spiritual way,” he recalled. “I’d even considered approaching Aretha Franklin.”
“In the end, I was having lunch with a guy who ran a gospel music label. He sent me a bunch of albums, and one was by the New Jersey Mass Choir [pictured above; the NJMC is affiliated with the Gospel Music Workshop of America]. When I heard them, I immediately had the finished song in my head. So I drove out to New Jersey and watched them in rehearsals, and it sounded fantastic. They were fresh; they’d never recorded a mainstream album before.
“We got about 30 of the choir into the Right Track Studio in New York,” explained Jones. “We did a few takes, and it was good, but it was still a bit tentative. So then they all got round in a circle, held hands and said The Lord’s Prayer. And it seemed to inspire them, because after that they did it in one take. I was in tears, because my mum and dad were in the studio too, and it was so emotional.”
For the final original recording (the first of five singles from the album), Thompson Twins frontman, Tom Bailey, added keyboard parts, and Jennifer Holliday (above) joined the choir as a background singer and arranged the singers’ parts.
She had just completed a couple years starring in Broadway’s Dreamgirls musical (written about here, with personal memories from a 1982 seat in the theatre), and Foreigner had booked late 1983 studio time, for the album, at New York City’s Hit Factory and Right Track Recording; shortly after laying down her tracks, Holliday hit the road as the lead in the touring company of Sing, Mahalia, Sing (the Oakland, CA performance of which this writer attended).
As for Gramm, and his misgivings about the song, Jones once told Billboard: “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 song ended up reaching #1 on the UK Singles Chart in January 1985, dethroning Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, and staying there for three weeks. It also knocked Madonna’s long-running “Like a Virgin” off the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S. in February 1985.
“I doubt there are many people who haven’t heard it. It was played on the radio all around the world. And I started getting letters from people who weren’t necessarily fans, but had found comfort in that song at times of suffering and sadness. Everybody took their own meaning from it. And that’s all you can hope for as a writer.”
It wasn’t long after their appearance on Foreigner’s hit that the NJMC took a turn at it on their own:
Wynonna with Jeff Beck & Bekka Bramlett
Wynonna Judd released her cover in August 2004, appearing on her What the World Needs Now Is Love album as its fourth single:
Wynonna’s arrangement was produced by Narada Michael Walden (pictured above with two other one-name superstars he’s produced, Aretha and Whitney). Walden spent eight years and seven solo albums as Foreigner’s Atlantic Records label-mate from 1976 through 1983.
Also known for his work with Mariah Carey (who also recorded a cover of “I Want to Know What Love Is),” Walden was Journey’s drummer from 2020 until 2022, appearing on their ‘22 album, Freedom.
Wynonna’s version is notable for her eye-poppingly accomplished guest list, including the late Jeff Beck on guitar, Bekka Bramlett (rock duo Delaney & Bonnie’s daughter) adding background vocals, prodigious session guitarist, Tom Bukovac (whose former wife of ten years, singer Sarah Buxton, was featured in FR&B’s recent Hanson “Where’s the Love” article), equally hard-working steel guitarist, Paul Franklin, songwriter/producer Dann Huff on guitar, and next-level session bassist, Willie Weeks.
Chesney recorded his decidedly rapid-paced cover for Blue Chair/Columbia Nashville in 2016 for his Cosmic Hallelujah album, his seventeenth. “I Want to Know What Love Is,” is the 12th (and a “hidden track”) on the disc, meaning it’s possible many buyers may not have detected it was there. In fact, the track listing on the back of the CD jewel case only lists eleven songs! Chesney and Buddy Cannon produced.
Of the four songs from the album released as singles, “I Want to Know…” wasn’t one of them. The album was nominated for a Grammy in 2018 for Best Country Album. It debuted at #2 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart. The album also debuted at #1 on the Top Country Albums chart.
Foreigner feat. Nate Ruess
In 2016, Foreigner re-entered the studio and re-recorded the song, with Nate Ruess (fun, The Format) handling the lead singing chores. In 2005, Ruess and The Format released an EP, Snails, for Foreigner’s old boss, Atlantic Records.
Foreigner (with Kelly Hansen fronting) and Ruess perform the song on ABC-TV’s Greatest Hits, July 14, 2016:
Friend of FR&B, Substack’s Steve Goldberg, gives “I Want to Know What Love Is” his own creative, humorous, and entertaining Earworms and Song Loops treatment:
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