The song was written by Williams in 1953 when he was 15 years old. He had been trying to convince his date not to go home at 10 o'clock as she was supposed to. He lost the argument, but as he was to relate years later, "Like a flood, the words just came to me."
In 1960, the song was put on a demo by Williams and his band, the Zodiacs, but it attracted no interest until a ten-year-old heard it and impressed the band members with her positive reaction to the tune. The band's producers took it along with some other demos to New York City and played them for all the major record producers that they could access. Finally, Al Silver of Herald Records became interested, but insisted that the song be re-recorded as the demo's recording levels were too low. They also said that one line, "Let's have another smoke" would have to be removed in order for the song to be played on commercial radio. After the group recorded the tune again, it was released by Herald Records and was picked up by CKLW. It entered the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 on October 9, 1960 and reached the number one spot on November 21, 1960. It was dislodged a week later by Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?".
The original recording of "Stay" remains the shortest single ever to reach the top of the American record charts, at 1 minute 36 seconds in length. By 1990, it had sold more than 8 million copies. It received a new lease of popularity after being featured on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
In 1964, the song was covered by the Dave Clark 5 on their studio album "Glad All Over."
In 1964, the song was covered by the Four Seasons, whose version peaked at number 16, in the U.S. Vee Jay originally released the latter as the B-side of "Peanuts" in January, but when disc jockeys started to "turn the single over" to play "Stay" on the air, the record company superseded the single with a new one with "Stay" as the A-side and "Goodnight My Love" as the new B-side.
The song was covered by Jan & Dean and was planned to be released on their album Carnival of Sound in 1968. Carnival of Sound was not released until 2010.
Singer-songwriter Andrew Gold recorded a version of "Stay" for his 1976 album What's Wrong with This Picture?
A version of the song with revised lyrics is the last track on Jackson Browne's 1977 album Running on Empty. The song, which follows on the heels of Browne's "The Load-Out" begs the audience to stay for an encore and includes an extensive playout. It includes backing contributions from David Lindley and from Rosemary Butler. Browne, Butler, and Lindley each contribute a similar verse in turn in ascending vocal ranges. It was released as a single and reached number 20 in the U.S.
"Stay" was the third and final single from Cyndi Lauper's 2003 cover album At Last. It was a promo-only single, released only in the U.S. and Australia. The video that accompanied it is rarely seen but is commercially available as a special feature on the DVD, Live at Last.
In 1980 Austrian singer Georg Danzer wrote a German text to the Jackson Browne medley "The Load Out"/"Stay". It was performed live on the album Direkt as "Roadie Song".
Lyrics from the song were interpolated on reggae artist Buju Banton's song "Hush Baby Hush" on his 1995 album 'Til Shiloh.
British pop group Dreamhouse covered the song, first released as a single in 1995, then again in 1998.