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The Story Behind The Song: Aretha Franklin's mega-hit ‘Respect’

Before Aretha Franklin was rightfully nicknamed the ‘Queen of Soul,‘ she was just another dreamer trying to make a name for herself in the club scene. After she got her big break by signing with Columbia Records in 1960, Franklin produced a string of hits that would create buzz around her name but not quite reach the mainstream. It wasn’t until she recorded the 1967 smash hit ‘Respect,’ that she would be catapulted into stardom. 

Back in November of 1966, after being with Columbia for six years, the company began to lose faith when Franklin failed to produce the expected level of record sales, and because of this, they soon parted ways. But Franklin immediately found a place at Atlantic records, a pairing that would embrace Franklin’s gospel influences and soon create magic that remains an iconic piece of music history. 

In January of 1967, Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler booked Franklin for a series of recording dates at Alabama’s FAME Studios to begin a new project. After recording ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’ with engineer Tom Dowd, an altercation between the studio owner and Franklin’s husband and manager, Ted White, broke out, halting the sessions. They continued ten days later in New York without White, which is when the idea to record a version of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ was introduced— a song Franklin had been performing in her live shows for years. 

In the documentary Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music, Dowd revealed about the recording of ‘Respect’: “I walked out into the studio and said, ‘What’s the next song?’ Aretha starts singing it to me. I said, ‘I know that song. I made it with Otis Redding like three years ago,'” he shared. “The first time I recorded ‘Respect’ was on the Otis Blue album, and she picked up on it. She and Carolyn were the ones who conceived of it coming from the woman’s point of view instead of the man’s point of view, and when it came to the middle, Carolyn said, ‘Take care, TCB.’ Aretha jumped on it, and that was how we did ‘Respect.'”

Originally a ballad, the song ‘Respect’ was brought to Redding by Speedo Sims in 1965. When Redding turned it into a funky, upbeat record, his version hit number 35 in the US charts. Redding said of ‘Respect’: “That’s one of my favorite songs because it has a better groove than any of my records. It says something, too: ‘What you want, baby, you got it; what you need, baby, you got it; all I’m asking for is a little respect when I come home.’ The song lines are great. The band track is beautiful. It took me a whole day to write it and about twenty minutes to arrange it. We cut it once, and that was it. Everybody wants respect, you know.”

Franklin’s rendition flipped the gender of the lyrics and introduced a “stop-and-stutter” type syncopation like the repeated “sock it to me,” which was worked out by Franklin with her sisters Erma and Carolyn. Along with the spelling out of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” “sock it to me” became a common expression because of the catchy tune. Franklin cleared up the often misinterpreted phrase in a 1999 interview by revealing, “Some of the girls were saying that to the fellas, like ‘sock it to me’ in this way or ‘sock it to me’ in that way. It’s not sexual. It was nonsexual, just a cliché line.”

When released in April on Franklin’s debut Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, ‘Respect’ immediately reached number one on both the pop and R&B charts. The song is now realized as Franklin’s signature and is considered an early feminist and civil rights anthem. Redding shared the world’s admiration for the song when Frankin’s version came out. He told Wexler about the moment he first heard it, stating, “This girl has taken that song from me. Ain’t no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her.”

Franklin said of the track back in 2014: “Well, I just love it. Of course, that became a mantra for the civil rights movement. ‘Respect’ is just basic to everyone: everybody wants it […] Everybody wants and needs respect. It’s basic to mankind. Perhaps what people could not say, the record said it for them.”

It’s a song that has since transcended into the realm of ‘anthem’, and Franklin notes its importance as part of feminist and civil rights movements but suggests it was the people who made the song such an imperious one. “I don’t think I was a catalyst for the women’s movement,” she continued. “As far as I know, that was Gloria Steinem’s role. But if I were, so much, the better. Women did, and still do, need equal rights. We’re doing the same job; we expect the same pay and the same respect.

“I never get tired of singing it,” Franklin confessed. “I really love it. And I find new ways to just keep it fresh for me, without changing exactly what it is people heard on the record.” Whenever played on the radio or on record, it remains a moment that can swallow up the entire household and provoke outbreaks of dancing, singing, and laughter. If music was intended for any purpose, this is surely it.

Listen to Aretha Franklin’s mega-hit ‘Respect’ below. 

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