How Aretha Franklin Earned “Respect” by Flipping Gender Roles
Some perspective on the cover version that made many forget the original
Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is one of the most iconic songs ever. At the time of its release in 1967, it topped both the Billboard Pop Singles and Black Singles charts. In 1968, it earned two Grammies: “Best Rhythm & Blues Recording” and “Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female.” It was adopted as a soundtrack by both the civil rights and feminist movements. And in 2002, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry. This last distinction marked the song as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Enough said.
In a word, the song is awesome. It’s one of those tunes that just hits you. You’d have to be brain dead if some part of your body didn’t tap in time to its relentless beat. And that vocal performance? An angel walks among us, I tell you.
It could be the best cover version of any song ever recorded.
No, no, you say, that isn’t right!
But it is. Franklin’s “Respect” was a cover. But it was so successful, most people soon forgot all about the original.
And it’s not like she’d transformed something old and obscure no one would have known about. No, her success was in taking something many people already knew and turning it on its head.
In the beginning . . .
Otis Redding is known today for his cover of “Try a Little Tenderness” and his original “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay.” A giant of 1960s R&B, Redding wrote the song that would rocket Franklin to stardom.
He first wrote “Respect” for a singer named Speedo Sims. Sims was supposed to record it as a ballad with his band the Singing Demons. But the recording didn’t work out as hoped and it was never released.
So, Redding reworked the song for his 1965 release, Otis Blue. The new version was uptempo and stands today as a textbook example of the Stax Records sound.
The song did well for Redding, peaking at number five on the Black Singles Chart. It even enjoyed some crossover success, making it to 35 on the pop charts.
But lyric-wise? Um . . . Let’s just say the song wouldn’t have flown in a post-Aretha world.
It tells the tale of a tired man coming home from work to demand the respect of his woman. Take all my money, he says. You can even fool around on me when I’m not around. “All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when I come home.”
A woman’s touch
Franklin started working with Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records, in 1967. He suggested she try a version of “Respect,” thinking it would be a good fit for her voice. He wasn’t wrong, but the lyrics weren’t right, either.
Reworking the words from a woman’s perspective, Franklin gave the song new meaning. I don’t care how much money you bring in, she seemed to be saying. It doesn’t mean a thing if you think it gives you the right to boss me around. She turns the tables on her man, demanding respect for herself. “Give me my propers when you get home.”
It was one hell of a bold statement, especially considering this was 50 years ago.
A classic battle of the sexes
Although released within two years of each other, the public had a clear preference. A preference that went way beyond marketing and distribution. Franklin’s version resonated with people. By changing the perspective of the song, she made you cheer for the underdog. It struck a chord with the downtrodden and gave them a flag to rally round.
Two months after the release of Franklin’s single, Redding played the Monterey Pop Festival. He introduced “Respect” as “a song that a girl took away from me.” Like they’d had a playground spat and Franklin wouldn’t let him have his ball back.
You could interpret that statement one of two ways. But I like to think he’s joking. It’s self-deprecating, in an uncomfortable, I’m-not-too-sure-how-to-not-be-a-chauvinist-anymore way. But it looks like he’s trying. That’s important.
But by that time, Franklin had earned Redding’s respect. In his next breath, he calls her a “good friend of mine.” And rightly so. She was about to make him rich. As the writer of a number one pop song, he had a big payday coming his way, all thanks to her.
When Redding played “Respect” live at Monterey, he ended the number by repeating the phrase “sock it to me.” It was an obvious allusion to the bridge that Franklin had added in her version. She may have taken his song, but he was retrofitting his version of it with her stuff now. How’s that for respect?
As cruel fate would have it, Redding never got to cash the royalty check Franklin was sending his way. Six months after his riveting performance at Monterey, he died in a plane crash. He was only 26, and “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay” hadn’t even been released yet.
When asked about his death, Franklin had this to say:
I heard it on the TV. My sister Caroline and I stopped everything and stayed glued to the TV and radio. It was a tragedy. Shocking.