The beginnings of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" came with composer and arranger Horace Ott, who came up with the melody and chorus lyric line after a temporary falling out with his girlfriend (and wife-to-be), Gloria Caldwell. He then brought it to writing partners Bennie Benjamin and Sol Marcus to complete. However, when it came time for songwriting credits, rules of the time prevented BMI writers (Ott) from officially collaborating with ASCAP members (the other two), so Ott instead listed Caldwell's name on the credits.
"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was one of five songs involving the writing of Benjamin and Marcus, presented for Nina Simone's 1964 album Broadway-Blues-Ballads. There, it is taken at a very slow tempo and arranged around harp and other orchestral elements; a backing choir appears at several points. Simone sings it in her typically difficult-to-categorize style. Horace Ott's involvement did not end with his initial songwriting; he was the arranger and orchestral conductor for the entire album. Backed with "A Monster", "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was released as a single in 1964, but failed to chart.
To some writers, this version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" carried the subtext of the American Civil Rights Movement, that concerned much of Simone's work of the time; while to others, this was more personal, and was the song, and phrase, that best exemplified Simone's career and life.
Decades later, a commercial for Christian Dior's perfume J'Adore, starring Charlize Theron, featured Simone's version of the song, as did the final scene of the 2009 Polish film drama Rewers. In 2010, Simone's version was used for the end credits of the first season finale episode of BBC's crime drama Luther; in 2011, it was used again in the trailer for the show's second season.
The Animals' lead singer Eric Burdon would later say of the song, "It was never considered pop material, but it somehow got passed on to us and we fell in love with it immediately." The Animals sped up the tempo and started off with an electric guitar-and-organ doubled riff from Hilton Valentine and Alan Price, that was picked out and expanded from an element that originally appeared in the Simone recording's outro. This riff immediately led into Burdon's trademark deep, impassioned vocal line:
Baby, do you understand me now?
Sometimes I feel a little mad.
But don't you know that no one alive can always be an angel?
When things go wrong, I seem to be bad.
(group unison) But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good:
(just Burdon) Oh Lord! Please don't let me be misunderstood ...
A disco version of the song by the disco group Santa Esmeralda, which took The Animals' arrangement and added some disco, flamenco, salsa, and other Latin rhythm and ornamentation elements to it, also became a hit in the late 1970s. First released in summer 1977 as a 16-minute epic, that took up an entire side of their Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood album, it was picked up for more worldwide distribution by the label of the time, Casablanca Records. A 12-inch club remix was extremely popular, hitting number one on the U.S. Billboard Club Play Singles chart and in some European countries as well. The single peaked at number four on the Hot Dance/Disco-Club Play chart. Released as a pop single late in the year, it did well as well, reaching number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 by early 1978. NBC Sports would use the song frequently in the years following its release, especially during their coverage of the World Series.
Santa Esmeralda's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" was used as the opening theme of the 1980 pilot for the U.S. game show Bullseye, after which a sound-alike was used in regular episodes. This version of the song was also used on German ARD soccer television show Sportschau from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, in the introduction for the "goal of the month" segment. Santa Esmeralda's rendition is featured in the 1992 film American Me and the 2001 English comedy Blow Dry. It became widely popular with a later generation after its inclusion in the 2003 Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill: Volume 1, where its instrumental passage plays over the duel between The Bride and O-Ren Ishii, and the accompanying Kill Bill Vol. 1 Original Soundtrack, where it is incorporated in a full vocal form that runs over ten minutes. A rendition appears in the trailer for the 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as well as the 2008 Korean "ramyun western" film The Good, the Bad, the Weird, played in the chasing sequence in the Manchurian desert.
After Cat Stevens converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam and left popular music, various controversies arose concerning public statements and actions. When he returned to such music, he recorded an allusion to such controversies by way of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", with some lyrical alterations, as featured on his 2006 album An Other Cup.