Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is one of the most iconic songs of all time. When it was released in 1967, it topped both the Billboard Pop Singles and Black Singles charts. In 1968, it earned two Grammys: “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 marks the song as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” for eternity. Enough said.
Regardless of its historical significance, the song itself is, in a word, 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 may just be the best cover version of any song ever recorded.
A Cover? That Can’t Be Right!
But it is. Franklin’s “Respect” was a cover. But its success eclipsed the original so quickly that many people forgot.
And it’s not as if she transformed something old and obscure that no one would’ve known. No, her success — and her artistry — was in taking something incredibly well-known and turning it on its head.
The Original ‘Respect’
Today, Otis Redding is known for his cover of “Try a Little Tenderness,” and for his original “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay.” A giant of 1960s R&B, Redding also 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 planned and was never released. So, Redding reworked the song for his 1965 release, Otis Blue. The new version was uptempo, and it stands today as a textbook example of the “Stax Records” sound. (Stax Records was Otis’ label, and a well-known Southern soul outfit.)
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? 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 behind my back. “All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when I come home.”
A Soul Queen’s Touch
In 1967, Franklin started working with Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records. 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, demanding respect in the words of a song originally written for a man. “Give me my propers when you get home,” she sings.
It was one hell of a bold statement, especially considering this was 50 years ago.
A Billboard 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. By changing the perspective of the song, she made you cheer for the underdog. It struck a chord with the downtrodden. They feverishly rallied around it.
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 can interpret that statement in 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 then, 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 Franklin had added in her version. Though she may have taken his song, he was retrofitting his version to include her riffs. 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 in 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.”