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Respect: The Story Behind Aretha Franklin’s Song For Empowerment
In Depth

Respect: The Story Behind Aretha Franklin’s Song For Empowerment

Originally recorded by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin turned the song Respect into ‘one of the battle cries of the civil-rights movement’.

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“It became the ‘respect’ women expected from men and men expected from women,” Aretha Franklin has said of her most famous song, Respect. “[It is] the inherent right of all human beings.” One of the greatest ever demands for racial and gender equality, Respect started out as a very different creature, yet has become known throughout the world for its urgent call for societal change.

Listen to the best of Aretha Franklin here.

Otis Redding’s version: “Then we quit. Go home and relax and sleep”

The “King Of Soul”, Otis Redding, who wrote and recorded the first version of Respect, knew what it was to work hard and come home exhausted. By the age of 15, he had left school to earn money and help support his family; he worked as a well digger, a gas-station attendant and, occasionally, as a musician. Redding had a strong work ethic and, even after becoming an established recording artist, tended to describe songwriting in disciplined, hours-worked terms rather than through creative inspiration.

“We all get up and down to the studios at 12, midday, and work through until nine in the evening,” he said in 1966. “All the songwriting is done in the studio. We don’t get it prepared outside beforehand, no. Then we quit. Go home and relax and sleep. Everybody has a good think about the things they’ve been doing and then comes back the next day at 12 – always at 12 – fresh and with a lot of new ideas. That’s it.”

However, the composition of Respect was unusual, less clear-cut than the standard clocking-in approach that resulted in many of the best Otis Redding songs. The true kernel of the tune remains mysterious – while Redding’s name is listed on the label, it’s likely that a very early idea for Respect came via Speedo Sims, leader of a group named The Singing Demons. Sims, in turn, had reputedly picked it up from an unnamed session guitarist. What is known is that Redding completely reshaped these nascent ideas, sped up the tempo, wrote new lyrics and turned the song into a plea for his partner to respect him after a hard day’s graft. He released Respect as a single in the summer of 1965 and included it on his third album, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul.

Aretha Franklin’s version: “So many people identified with and related to Respect”

As fantastic as Redding’s song was, the words, and his performance, held up a traditional gender imbalance: the man earns money, and it’s the woman’s role to be compliant at home. The next, and definitive, version of Respect would absolutely flip that dynamic, turning the song into an activist rallying cry.

Aretha Franklin had been performing Respect live for several months when she decided to include it on her 1967 album, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. “So many people identified with and related to Respect,” she wrote in her autobiography, From These Roots. “It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher – everyone wanted respect.”

Franklin, along with her sisters Carolyn and Erma, reworked Redding’s original and, notably, added the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me” sections. “[‘Sock it to me’] became a household expression through the recording industry and the TV programme Laugh-In, and we never got a dime of credit,” Franklin lamented.

Franklin’s version of the song didn’t hold back: while Redding’s Respect reaffirmed gender norms, Franklin upended them. In her recording, she demanded her man respect her, and her impassioned voice spoke for all women fighting discrimination, both inside and outside of the home. Such overtly feminist statements were rare at the time, something which Franklin herself found perplexing. “I don’t think it’s bold at all,” she reflected in 2017. “I think it’s quite natural that we all want respect – and should get it.”

The release: “One of the battle cries of the civil-rights movement”

The period between the releases of Redding’s and Franklin’s versions of Respect had been key in the US civil-rights movement. The slogan “Black Power” was first used in 1966, in a speech by Stokely Carmichael; the Black Panther Party was founded; the prohibition on interracial marriage had been deemed unconstitutional; and Martin Luther King, Jr, continued to deliver speeches that set out the imperative need for change, drawing worldwide attention.

Aretha Franklin had grown up in a household that celebrated Black identity, and she counted civil-rights activists among her closest friends. Her politics were always an essential part of her artistry. Franklin said her peers in the civil-rights movement “had so much integrity, and their word was really their bond. They were leaders of a generation of giants whom I was so privileged to know and for whom I sang – and still sing – the songs of Zion. That generation provided us with an example of not only religious conviction but high political consciousness.”

One of the best Aretha Franklin songs of all time, Respect was released as a single on 29 April 1967, and the “Queen Of Soul” herself described it as “one of the battle cries of the civil-rights movement”. It has been synonymous with racial justice ever since its release.

The legacy: “I find new ways to keep it fresh for me”

Since Franklin released her version, there have been dozens of covers of Respect. One of the best is a duet between The Supremes and The Temptations, two groups who also represented Black pride in late-60s America; together, they created a fusion between Redding and Franklin’s versions, while adding a dash of that Motown showbiz glitter.

One of the most inventive covers of the song was by Adeva. In 1989, the US singer took Respect and translated it into the Chicago house-music culture of the time, creating a fusion between the powerful lyrics and a driving beat. “Most vocals on house music at the time were just ad libs and runs,” Adeva said in 2022. “[Before Respect] it wasn’t a full-out verse, chorus, verse, chorus.” Like Franklin, Adeva has spoken powerfully about the importance of projecting strong Black womanhood in her music, so it’s unsurprising Respect fitted so well with her worldview.

Despite more modern covers by Rita Ora, Lorde, Melissa Etheridge and Reba McEntire, there has been nothing to touch Aretha Franklin’s definitive version of the song. In 2014, Franklin asserted that she was still not tired of singing Respect. “I love it,” she said. “I find new ways, after all these years, to keep it fresh for me, without changing exactly what it is that people heard on the record.”

Find out where Respect ranks among the best Aretha Franklin songs of all time.

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