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Music

Aretha Franklin's iconic song 'Respect' turns 55

It’s impossible to underestimate Aretha Franklin’s influence, both as a singer and an artist. Every vocal was performed as if she was singing for the last time, never underestimating the importance of the melody in question, or the value her fans were imparting on her work as an artist. ‘Respect’, her greatest recording, demonstrated the singer at her most vulnerable, venerable and fundamentally human. She was driven by the work, understanding that it was the performances that made her beloved by so many millions, but it was her sense of realness that made her so re-listenable, never underestimating the sense of integrity of the work in question.

Regarded by critics as a feminist anthem par excellence, the single captured the singer at her most warrior-like and battle-ready, willing to do what was necessary in order to achieve her position in life. She was black and was unafraid to establish herself as the voice of a woman of colour, neatly understanding that this position gave the song an added dimension of danger that might not have come from a caucasian singer. But it didn’t serve her to compromise, especially since the tune celebrated the feeling of individuality and aspiration. If she had a male counterpart, it was Sam Cooke, the boisterous soul singer who sang from a place of tremendous truth and integrity.

“Sam and I met at a Sunday evening program that we had at our church back in the early ’50s,” she recalled. “And I was sitting there waiting for the program to start after church, and I just happened to look back over my shoulder and I saw this group of people coming down the aisle. And, oh, my God, the man that was leading them — Sam and his brother LC. These guys were really super sharp. They had on beautiful navy blue and brown trench coats. And I had never seen anyone quite as attractive — not a male as attractive as Sam was. And so [laughs] prior to the program my soul was kind of being stirred in another way.”

Her vocal delivery was stirring in another way. Considering the strength of the barrelling guitar hook, it took a brave singer to capture the essence of the instrument in a manner that revered the pummelling nature of the instrumentation, both as a force of nature, and a woman in need of a life change.

Franklin denied that there was a sexual yearning to the vocal, although the “sock it to me” refrain must have raised eyebrows in the 1960s, going on to become a catchphrase on the TV show Laugh In in the ’70s. Furthering the popularity, the tune featured in American features Platoon, Forrest Gump and Mystic Pizza. More comically, the tune can be heard on Airplane!, as a nun recreates the vocal at a time of certain duress and distress that awaits the passengers in question.

The tune served her when she appeared in The Blues Brothers sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, as the song cascaded from her lips. There was nothing facsimile about the recording, particularly when it came with such a tremendous display of commitment and restraint. The recording stood up with the blues re-recordings that shuffled through the film’s soundtrack, capably understanding that the work in question was pivotal to the reality of the production in question. Indeed, the tune has outlived the singer, finely cementing the singer to the realm of superstars that belong in Valhalla.

Where the song will go next is unknown, but it’s only a matter of time before someone else decides to record it. But the song will always be Franklin’s, something writer Otis Redding was happy to admit himself. “This girl has taken that song from me,” he admitted. “Ain’t no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her.”

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