Recorded in the early morning hours of March 10, 1966, the song was the last one recorded for Dylan's double-album Blonde on Blonde. It was issued as a single that June, shortly before the release of the album. The single's B-side was a live version of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."
Dylan performed the song as a slow ballad during his 1978 world tour, as heard on Bob Dylan at Budokan, released in 1979. Dylan also revisited the song in 1987 on a co-tour with the Grateful Dead; their version was released in 1989 on the Dylan and the Dead album.
Sean Wilentz sees numerous failures documented in early drafts for the lyrics; "deputies asking him his name... lines about fathers going down hugging one another and about their daughters putting him down because he isn't their brother". Finally Dylan arrives at the right formula. The song's sentimental aspect was partially explained in a 1966 interview: "It's not just pretty words to a tune or putting tunes to words... [It's] the words and the music [together]—I can hear the sound of what I want to say."
Andy Gill observed that the song's tension is achieved through the balance of the "direct address" of the chorus, the repeated phrase "I want you," and a weird cast of characters "too numerous to inhabit the song's three minutes comfortably", including a guilty undertaker, a lonesome organ grinder, weeping fathers, mothers, sleeping saviours, the Queen of Spades, and "a dancing child with his Chinese suit". Gill reports that "the dancing child" has been interpreted as a reference to Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, and his then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg.Clinton Heylin agrees there may be substance to this because the dancing child claims that "time was on his side", as a reference to "Time Is On My Side", the Stones' first U.S. hit.
Billboard magazine recorded the release of "I Want You" in its June 25 issue, and predicted it would reach the Top 20. The track entered the Billboard Hot 100 charts on July 2, 1966 at #90, and Billboard tapped the single as a "star performer"—a side "registering greatest proportionate upward progress this week". It peaked at #20 on July 30.
"I Want You" entered the Cash Box charts at #59 on July 2, and was tapped for strong upward movement. It rose slowly, and peaked at #25 on August 6. It was also a major hit in the UK, where it peaked at #16.