“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.