How Aretha Franklin Turned Otis Redding’s “Respect” Into a Civil Rights and Feminist Anthem

“R‑E-S-P-E-C‑T…” You know the rest.

When R&B leg­end Otis Red­ding, who wrote and first record­ed “Respect,” heard Aretha Franklin’s ver­sion of the song, he report­ed­ly said, “well, I guess it’s that girl’s song now.”

Aretha didn’t just cov­er Redding’s song, she “flipped the script,” notes The Wash­ing­ton Post video above, turn­ing his call for enti­tle­ment into a demand for empow­er­ment and cre­at­ing a fem­i­nist and civ­il rights anthem. She changed the lyrics to suit her, spelled it out in the cho­rus, and added the “sock it to me” refrain with her sis­ters Car­olyn and Erma—both suc­cess­ful soul singers in their own right—backing her up.

Franklin’s 1967 record­ing was “a dec­la­ra­tion of inde­pen­dence that was unapolo­getic, uncom­pro­mis­ing and unflinch­ing… a demand for some­thing that could no longer be denied…. The coun­try had nev­er heard any­thing like it.”

After Aretha reshaped it, the song “took on a uni­ver­sal­i­ty the orig­i­nal nev­er had,” says Franklin’s biog­ra­ph­er David Ritz. “It is a cred­it to her genius she was able to do so much with it. She should have been list­ed as a co-pro­duc­er of the song.”

Indeed, she might have been cred­it­ed as a co-writer of her ver­sion, but in a trag­ic irony, her biggest hit, in which she pro­claimed finan­cial inde­pen­dence and per­son­al pow­er, net­ted her exact­ly zero in roy­al­ties.

“For the rough­ly sev­en mil­lion times the song has been played on Amer­i­can radio sta­tions,” notes Ben Sis­ario at The New York Times, “she was paid noth­ing” due to “an aspect of copy­right law that has long irked the record busi­ness,” in which radio sta­tions pay the writ­ers and pub­lish­ers of songs and not the per­form­ers. This inequity has made Aretha’s “Respect” an anthem for musi­cians fight­ing for their rights as well.

But first and fore­most, Franklin’s “’Respect’… caught on with the black pow­er move­ment and fem­i­nists and human rights activists across the world,” notes the Post’s DeNeen Brown. “The coun­try was a tin­der box, as peo­ple of col­or demand­ed equal­i­ty and jus­tice that had been too long in com­ing.” Despite land­mark civ­il rights cas­es in the Supreme Court and pas­sage of the 1964 Civ­il Rights Act, resis­tance to change in both the North and South was sus­tained and often bru­tal­ly vio­lent.

For all its deep res­o­nance in the black com­mu­ni­ty, “Respect” spoke to every­one, char­ac­ter­iz­ing defi­ance to a social order that seemed intent on pre­serv­ing oppres­sive hier­ar­chies and his­toric injus­tices; “the song imme­di­ate­ly crossed over, oblit­er­at­ing col­or lines.” Released in April of 1967, it hit Num­ber One on the charts and “stayed there for at least 12 weeks.” It may not have made Franklin the mon­ey she deserved—though it made a mint for Otis Redding—but her record­ing pro­pelled her from star­dom to inter­na­tion­al super­star­dom. Hear her ver­sion fur­ther up and Redding’s orig­i­nal record­ing just above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aretha Franklin’s Pitch-Per­fect Per­for­mance in The Blues Broth­ers, the Film That Rein­vig­o­rat­ed Her Career (1980)

Aretha Franklin’s Most Pow­er­ful Ear­ly Per­for­mances: “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Say a Lit­tle Prayer” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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