Aretha Franklin: Paying R-E-S-P-E-C-T to an American Icon

In 1965, renowned soul singer Otis Redding released a song, titled “Respect”, in an attempt to connect with working class men. Drawing upon the traditional family values at the time, Redding croons “Hey, little girl, you’re so sweeter than honey, and I’m about to give you all my money, but all I’m askin’, hey, is a little respect when I get home.” The song was a minor hit, but failed to gain significant traction following its release [7]. How can it be possible, then, that only two years later, a gospel singer from Detroit would transform Redding’s tune into a ubiquitous feminist and civil rights anthem?

On Valentine’s Day, 1967, Aretha Franklin walked into a New York City recording studio and belted what would become the most iconic seven letters in pop music. When her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was released two months later, it took the charts by storm, quickly becoming a number one hit, and catapulting the little-known gospel singer into a pop superstar [2]. Franklin’s “Respect” took off due to the song’s significance on both a personal and societal level.

Franklin chose to cover “Respect” for personal reasons. Drawing on issues on her own marriage at the time for inspiration, Franklin made subtle changes to Redding’s lyrics, including changing the aforementioned lyric from the original into “Ooo your kisses, sweeter than honey… And guess what? So is my money” [2]. She also added a new bridge to the song, which became one of the most iconic moments in music history. Asserting, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!” along with the iconic “sock it to me!”, Franklin vents her sexual frustrations and desire for equal favor in a manner that completely subverts the meaning or Redding’s original song.

Franklin’s changes that made the song fit her own situation also satisfied a subconscious societal demand for this type of music. “Respect” immediately became a universal vernacular anthem of the Civil Rights movement and the feminist movement, both of which had picked up steam by the late 1960’s. Arguably most important, however, is that Franklin herself was a black woman, assertively asking for sexual appreciation in a way that perfectly aligned with the urgent nature of both movements. This shows the usability and unpredictability of human memory. While the meaning of “Respect” revolves around Franklin’s personal experiences, the fervent nature of the song and Franklin’s powerful vocals can make a good case that the song was written specifically to be used in these movements.

In 1968, the vernacular narrative of Franklin as a cultural leader in the Civil Rights movement became an official one. On February 16th of that year, then-Detroit mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh designated the day as Aretha Franklin Day, dedicated to honoring her and her legacy [4]. Accompanying Franklin in the celebration was none other than Martin Luther King Jr., only two months before his assassination [5]. Franklin’s official recognition in 1968 continued, with her winning the Grammy award for “Best Female R&B Performance” and featured on the cover of TIME Magazine that June (Include this as a picture) [1][6]. Franklin, very self-aware, realized the impact she had on the social movements at the time and often performed publicly in support of King, actually a long-time family friend [5].

After seeing the vernacular and official reactions to Franklin’s cover, Otis Redding was ambivalent towards its success. Redding was not very pleased with Franklin garnering all of the praise for his song, but took it in stride and was admittedly impressed with Franklin’s rendition. When Redding performed the song at the Monterey Pop Festival in October 1967, he announced the song by saying “This next song is a song that a girl took away from me… she just took this song, but I’m still gonna do it anyway”. While the words sound negative on paper, the charm in Redding’s voice signals his appreciation for Franklin’s adaptation and the success she was able to achieve [7].

Today, any reference to “Respect” implies Franklin’s version, which remains a universally known and celebrated song. Rolling Stone recently labeled Franklin’s “Respect” as one of the five best songs of all time, dubbing it “the single that established her as the Queen of Soul” [2] . While Rolling Stone’s write-up does praise the song based on Franklin’s original intentions for it, there is little doubt that without the cultural momentum it capitalized on, “Respect” would have been able to amass the significance and longevity that it received. The song was released 51 years ago, and its ability to capture both Franklin’s particular desires as well as the universal trends that were reshaping American society at the time convey deep truths about the way American memory operates.

 

Sources:

[1] “11th Annual GRAMMY Awards.” GRAMMY.com, 28 Nov. 2017, http://www.grammy.com/grammys/awards/11th-annual-grammy-awards.

[2] “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 7 Apr. 2011, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-20110407/aretha-franklin-respect-20110516.

[3] “Aretha Franklin.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 19 Mar. 2018, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/aretha-franklin-about-aretha-franklin/598/.

[4] “Celebrating Aretha Franklin Day.” IHeartRadio, 18 Feb. 2018, http://www.iheartradio.ca/news/celebrating-aretha-franklin-day-1.3627028.

[5] Dobkin, Matt. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece. St. Martins Griffin, 2006.

[6] “June 28, 1968 | Vol. 91 No. 28.” Time, Time Inc., http://content.time.com/time/magazine/0,9263,7601680628,00.html.

[7] NPR Staff. “’Respect’ Wasn’t A Feminist Anthem Until Aretha Franklin Made It One.” NPR, NPR, 14 Feb. 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/02/14/515183747/respect-wasnt-a-feminist-anthem-until-aretha-franklin-made-it-one.

3 thoughts on “Aretha Franklin: Paying R-E-S-P-E-C-T to an American Icon”

  1. This post was really informative and really well done! I had no idea that her song was an Otis Redding cover, or the designation of a day celebrating her, and the way you tied her song to course concepts was masterful. I would be interested to see if her songs or who she was as a feminist would resonate with modern artists, especially female hip hop artists. Great job!

  2. I am happy that someone chose to do a song! While I know many singers generally have not written their own songs, I was surprised to hear that Aretha Franklin did not write Respect. It is a song that I only associate with her, and not Otis Redding. This post did an excellent job of laying out the information behind the song, and the influence it had, and still arguably has today.

  3. I learned a lot from your post! I had no idea Aretha Franklin’s version was a cover of Otis Redding’s song. A man singing a song about demanding respect from a woman was part of the reason a woman needed to sing a song about a woman demanding respect from a man. Great use of concepts from the course and applying them to the memory of this song.

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