Police lead singer Sting wrote the song, inspired by the prostitutes he saw near the band's seedy hotel while in Paris, France in October 1977 to perform at the Nashville Club. The title of the song comes from the name of the character in the play Cyrano de Bergerac, an old poster of which was hanging in the hotel foyer.
Sting had originally conceived the song as a bossa nova, although he credits Police drummer Stewart Copeland for suggesting its final rhythmic form as a tango. During recording, Sting accidentally sat down on a piano keyboard in the studio, resulting in the atonal piano chord and laughter preserved at the beginning of the track. The Police were initially diffident about the song, but Miles Copeland III was immediately enthusiastic after hearing it, becoming their manager and getting them their first record deal with A&M Records. However, the single did not chart upon its initial release.
The band released two further singles in the UK that year: "Can't Stand Losing You", which charted at number 42, and "So Lonely" which did not chart. Then, in early 1979, "Roxanne" was issued in North America as the group's first single there. In the US, "Roxanne" entered the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1979 and peaked at number 32 in April. In Canada, the single placed one rung higher on the charts, peaking at number 31.
The song's international success spurred a UK re-release of "Roxanne" in April 1979. This re-release of the song was a hit, reaching number 12 in the UK Singles Chart. The song went on to become a staple of Sting's performances during his solo career, and was also performed when The Police reunited in 2003 for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
There were three different music videos released for "Roxanne". The first shows the band performing the song on a stage on what is perhaps a sound check to a show. Many slow motion shots of the group live appear here as well. The second version was shot on a soundstage and shows the band performing before a red backdrop. The third version is identical to the second except the footage was transferred from videotape to film and has a grainy quality to it.
In the 1980s-1990s, this song was used as the intro to Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" with Dennis Miller.
A 1991 Saturday Night Live episode where Sting was the musical host had Sting play himself in a skit where he is in a high rise elevator, and the other occupants decide to sing the song (or moreso one word: "Rox-ANNE"!), to Sting's eventual annoyance.
In 2001, the song was one of the many remixed covers in the film Moulin Rouge!, named "El Tango de Roxanne", which was combined with the tango composition "Tanguera" by Mariano Mores.
In the Friends Season 8 episode "The One with Monica's Boots", Phoebe annoys Ross into helping her get Sting concert tickets by repeatedly singing out "ROSS CAN" to the tune of Roxanne, when she found out Ross's son Ben was in the same class as Sting's son.
In 1997, Sting re-recorded the song with music impresario Puff Daddy as "Roxanne '97 (Puff Daddy Remix)" for the compilation album The Very Best of Sting & The Police. Only the 1997 and 1998 A&M/PolyGram releases have this song, as it is omitted in the 2002 A&M/Universal re-release.
In 1997, Michael Franti & Spearhead covered the song in the film Good Burger during the introduction of a female character with the same name.
In 1997, British reggae group Aswad covered the song on its album Big Up.
In 1997, saxophonist Warren Hill covered the song on his album Shelter.
In 2008, Idina Menzel covered the song on her "I Stand" Summer Tour. She also performed the song on her 2010-2011 Symphony Tour as a mashup with Cole Porter's Love For Sale, which appears on her live album "Live: Barefoot at the Symphony."
In 2009, the song was parodied by Flight of the Conchords in You Don't Have to be a Prostitute, in episode 2 of its second television series.
In 2012, the song was covered by singer Juliet Simms for the reality television show, The Voice. Her cover reached number 86 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 2014, Nadia Ali did an acoustic cover of the song that was released as a free download.