The song was first recorded by Richard Chamberlain and released as a single in 1963 as "They Long to Be Close to You". However, while the single's other side, "Blue Guitar", became a hit, "They Long to Be Close to You" did not. The tune was also recorded as a demo by Dionne Warwick in 1963, was re-recorded with a Burt Bacharach arrangement for her album Make Way for Dionne Warwick (1964), and was released as the B-side of her 1965 single "Here I Am". Dusty Springfield recorded the song in August 1964, but her version was not released commercially until it appeared on her album Where Am I Going? (1967). Bacharach released his own version in 1971. But the version recorded by Carpenters with instrumental backing by L.A. studio musicians from the Wrecking Crew, which became a hit in 1970, was the most successful.
Karen and Richard Carpenter recorded the most commercially successful version of the song
In 1970, "(They Long To Be) Close To You" was released by the Carpenters on their album Close to You (1970) and became their breakthrough hit. The song stayed at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks. "(They Long to Be) Close to You" was named Billboard's Song of the Summer for 1970.
Bacharach and David gave Herb Alpert the song after he scored a number one hit in 1968 with "This Guy's in Love with You", which the duo had also written. Alpert recorded the song, but he was displeased with the recording and did not release it. After The Carpenters achieved their first chart success with "Ticket to Ride" in 1969, Alpert convinced them to record their version of the song, believing it was well-suited for them.
Carpenter and Alpert collaborated on the song, and the finished product was a 4-minute, 36-second long song. When A&M Records decided to remove the extended coda and release it as a 3-minute, 40-second long single in May 1970, it became A&M's biggest hit since Alpert's "This Guy's in Love with You" from 1968. Billboard ranked it as the number two song for 1970.
Richard had originally written the flugelhorn solo part for Herb Alpert, but when he was unavailable, Chuck Findley was brought in. Richard later commented: "Chuck didn't play it that way at first, but I worked with him and he nailed it. A lot of people thought it was Herb – Bacharach thought so, too. But it's the way Findley is playing it."
In the 1989 film Parenthood, Nathan (played by Rick Moranis) serenedes his teacher wife Susan (Harley Kozak) during one of her classes with this song in a (successful) attempt to win her back.
On the television series The Simpsons, it is Homer and Marge's song. It was first featured in the episode "The Way We Was" which depicts Homer and Marge first getting together, and has been used numerous times since. It is also the tune for the doorbell that wouldn't stop in the episode Maximum Homerdrive. It is revealed in The Simpsons Movie that they danced to the song at their wedding.
In the 2019 animated film Spies in Disguise, during the chase scene's climax when Lance (in his pigeon form) and Walter narrowly escape, and as Lance's Audi spy car careens off the highway and begins a slow-motion scene, the song plays.