In 1966, Aaron Neville recorded and released the original version of "Tell It Like It Is" on his album also entitled Tell It Like It Is (Par-Lo Records). In November 1966, the track was issued as a single which peaked in early 1967 at No. 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 (behind "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees) and No. 1 on the US Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The personnel on the original recording included George Davis arranging and playing baritone saxophone, Emory Humphrey-Thompson (Umar Shariff) on trumpet, Deacon John on guitar, Alvin "Red" Tyler on tenor saxophone, Willie Tee on piano and June Gardner on drums.
Heart covered "Tell It Like It Is" in 1980. It was a studio recording included on their Greatest Hits/Live album. It was the first of two singles released from the album, the other one a live recording but both of them cover hits. The song peaked at Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 during the winter of 1981 and became their highest-charting single in the United States to that point. It had higher success in Canada, reaching Number 4.
Also in 1989, American actor and singer Don Johnson covered the song for his second studio album Let It Roll. Johnson's version was successful in Europe, especially in Germany, reaching Number 2 there.