Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Respect” is one of those moving songs that makes you want to take over the world. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of bops out there, but “Respect” has a power that never seems to fade. Had a bad week at work? R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Having a little trouble at home? Re, re, re, re ‘spect. Franklin’s forceful vocals remind us we all deserve it, even on our worst days. The track is now regarded as a feminist and civil rights anthem — but it wasn’t originally written to have such a strong impact.
It was Valentine’s Day in 1967 when Franklin, a little-known 25-year-old gospel singer, walked into a New York City studio to record what would be the defining song of her career. Prior to that day, “Respect” was an Otis Redding creation with not-so-subtle hints of misogyny. It was a man’s “ode” to his wife — he demanded “respect” when he arrived home from work. “I’m about to, just give you all of my money / And all I’m asking, hey / A little respect when I come home,” Redding sang.
But Franklin had a different take in mind. While she adored the song, she felt she could transform it into something completely different. Alongside her sister, Carolyn, she sprinkled the tune with relatable jargon, changed a couple of riffs, and put the cherry on top with an instantly recognizable bridge: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!”
Just like that, she wrestled Redding’s singsong demand for wifely docility into a hymn that screamed of girl power.
“When I recorded it, it was pretty much a male-female kind of thing. And more in a general sense, from person-to-person,” Franklin said in an appearance on WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1999. “I’m going to give you respect and I’d like to have that respect back, or I expect respect to be given back.”
The song took on an entirely new meaning. It became relatable to women who had grown tired of being disrespected and neglected by men. It reminded them they, too, deserved to be treated with dignity.
Its release couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. In the late ’60s, fresh off the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the song empowered the downtrodden and oppressed. It encouraged them to stand up and demand fair treatment.
While she never imagined it would become a source of strength for millions of people across the world, she was proud of the role it played.
“It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect,” the Queen of Soul wrote in her autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots. “It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance. It became the ‘respect’ women expected from men and men expected from women, the inherent right of all human beings.”
“Respect” went on to become one of the greatest songs of all time — one that would transcend generations and become deeply embedded in pop culture, even up to this day. Since its release, it’s been sampled in over 20 feature films (including Forrest Gump and Bridget Jones’s Diary) and featured in countless television programs.
“‘Respect’ was – and is – an ongoing blessing in my life,” the singer wrote.
Aretha, it’s a blessing in ours too.
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