Preston's original version first appeared on his 1974 album The Kids & Me and as the B-side on the 45rpm pressing of his pop hit, "Struttin'". Cocker's producer, Jim Price, created a slowed-down arrangement for Cocker's version, which first appeared on the album, I Can Stand a Little Rain (released later in 1974). Released as a single, the Joe Cocker version reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1975 and helped the album become a hit. It would be his biggest hit until his duet with Jennifer Warnes, "Up Where We Belong", which reached #1 in 1982.
Though not officially credited as the song's writer, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys and Preston spontaneously collaborated on the words and music to the song at a party. Wilson never sought to reclaim his share of the song's authorship. The song's tone has been related to the style of his solo material.
Television programs have used commercial recordings of the song, along with versions sung in person by fictional characters and by professional singers. On Knots Landing (Season 11, Episode 270), the song played as a drunk Danny Waleska ran over Pat Williams with his car. Seventies-themed sitcomThe Wonder Years used a recorded version of the song in Season 6, Episode 16, "Nose," where it played at the end of the episode at a school dance where Kevin's friend Ricky loses a girl with a large nose just as Ricky had come to appreciate her. An episode of Home Improvement ("Jill's Birthday") accompanied the song with a montage of photos of Jill Taylor (Patricia Richardson) in her early age. On the season six Three's Company episode "Strangers in the Night," Jack Tripper tries to impress a woman by lip syncing to his friend Larry's performance of the song.Marge Simpson sings it to Homer at the very end of the Simpsons episode Simpson and Delilah — a performance included in one of the Simpsons compilation albums — later, Homer's sometime assistant Karl arranges for someone to come and sing the song to Marge, making it look like this is Homer's anniversary present to her. Singer Enrique Iglesias performed as the handyman Fernando in the sitcomTwo and a Half Men in the 2007 episode "Anteaters. They're Just Crazy-lookin'," and singer Babyface performed the song during the marriage ceremony of Martin and Gina of Martin. The song played in Season 5, Episode 9 of Full House and was mentioned in an episode[which?] of Desperate Housewives where it was revealed to have been Karl and Susan Mayer's song.
Televised reality competition programs have used the song multiple times over the years. Jessica Sanchez sang this on British Week on American Idol. Danny Gokey performed the song on American Idol during the week of the top 3 and was eliminated the next night. Boy Band One Direction covered the song in week eight of The X Factor UK's seventh series. Tim Hockenberry performed the song on his season 7 audition of America's Got Talent. Johnson & Jodeyne skated to "You Are So Beautiful" in week 9 of DOI & on the DOI tour. And Donna Allen sung "You Are So Beautiful" on Season 5 of The Voice during the blind auditions making Adam and Christina the only two to turn their chairs.
The film Modern Romance (1981) includes an instrumental version of the song in its opening and closing titles, and also uses Joe Cocker's version to underscore its final scene. Joe Cocker's version was also used in the film Carlito's Way (1993) and play's over the film's end credit's. Ian Harrison's recording played at a school dance during the UK movie Get Real (1999). In-person performances on film include Seann William Scott's in Evolution (2001) and the 1994 comedy The Little Rascals, where Alfalfa Switzer (Bug Hall) performed the song in his first scene.