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The scene: 1967.
The situation: The war in Vietnam was escalating. There were race riots in Newark and Detroit. The Black Panthers were on the rise while the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was beginning to fragment in response to government crackdowns and growing frustration over the slow speed of change. And women were agitating for rights and recognition ranging from the (still never passed) Equal Rights Amendment to the creation of the first women's centers. Women were also playing leading roles in civil rights activism, but in many cases their hard work was overlooked. In other words, there was a whole lot of drama going on.
The solution: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Aretha Franklin's 1967 smash hit may seem like a pretty benign piece of soulful fun, but at the time it came out, this song about a crumbling relationship had more than one meaning. On the one hand, it was the perfect pop song: energetic, catchy, heartfelt, and sexually suggestive. On the other hand, it was the perfect song for the political moment: it was the voice of a strong black woman demanding respect ("just a little bit") and showing her power ("What you want / Baby I got it"). Even though "Respect" was composed by a man as a lament about a bad relationship dynamic ("I'm about to give you all of my money / And all I'm askin' in return, honey / Is to give me my propers"), its thrilling and familiar chorus spelling out "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" quickly came to mean something much larger.
It may sound like we're exaggerating here... but if we are we wouldn't be the first. From the track's initial release, as Jerry Wexler recalls, "the reaction was fantastic." In the 1969 book The Sound of Soul, music critic Phyl Garland called "Respect " the "new black national anthem." Later, Garland told writer Matt Dobkin: "We were waiting for that song. It exploded, and it was something we all fell in love with." The founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, called the singles off Franklin's album I Never Loved A Man "the greatest rhythm and blues music ever made." He gushed about the popular response: "You went to Copenhagen and you went dancing in a club and you danced to 'Respect.' You went to Singapore the next day and you danced to 'Respect.' You went to Johannesburg and you would dance to 'Respect.' And then you went to Buffalo, New York, and you danced to 'Respect.' That was it!" (Dobkin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Masterpiece, 188).
These exuberant reactions weren't just a response to the music, but to what the music meant at that moment in time. While African Americans and women of all races fought an increasingly intense battle for social change, some had become frustrated at the slow pace of change. The song was perfect as a pop hit because it spoke to the activist youth, but also doubled as a silly love song with sexual undertones. Not surprisingly, Otis Redding's 1965 release of the song captures the love and sex themes without seeming to encompass the theme of political power. For some reason, a man asking for "a little respect" from his wife doesn't have quite the same empowering feel as Aretha Franklin's more famous feminized version.
In Aretha's hands, though, the song became "a fantastic feminist statement," in Wexler's words. Elevated by Franklin's incredibly powerful voice, "Respect" captured the most basic demands of the many people who had been marginalized by decades of Jim Crow segregation and "a woman's place is in the house"-type thinking. Poet Sherley Anne Williams expounded on Franklin's version of respect: "Aretha characterized respect as something given with force and great effort and cost. And when she even went so far as to spell the word 'respect,' we just knew that this sister wasn't playing around about getting respect and keeping it" (Dobkin 169). More than 30 years after the single came out, Ebony Magazine wrote that "Respect" had become "a personal and collective anthem not only for Aretha Franklin but for everybody living in the shadows, for abused and undervalued Sisters as well as undervalued Brothers, for women and men of all races who wanted, needed, had to have that respect" (Ebony, August 1998, 90).
Aretha Franklin's awe-striking voice was just right to sing this alternative anthem, launching her toward the peak of her hard-earned career. The daughter of a Baptist minister and a gospel singer, Franklin moved from Memphis to Detroit when she was two, joined her father's church choir at ten, and was soloing by twelve. At fourteen, she cut a record of gospel songs for Chess Records and toured widely with her father, who was a gospel singer with a reputation of his own. Legendary gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward and composer James Cleveland were regular guests in the Franklin house.
But Franklin's childhood was not all musical fortune and fame. Her mother abandoned the family when Aretha was six and passed away when Aretha was only ten. By fourteen, Aretha was pregnant; by seventeen, she had two children. In 1961, she married Ted White, a family friend, somewhat out of the blue and without the approval of her family. She moved in with White in Detroit and he soon became her manager despite not having previous music experience. The relationship was troubled throughout, reputedly marked by violence on his part. White inserted himself aggressively into Franklin's burgeoning career at every point, at one point infamously coming to blows with session musicians in the studio recording Aretha's "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You"—the song, ironically, is about loving a man who acts like a total jerk (although, to be fair, the rumor is that in this situation White was worked up over racist comments made by a white musician) (Mark Bego, Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, 54, 85).
After a series of only somewhat successful albums, Aretha Franklin left Columbia Records in 1966 to sign a deal with Atlantic, a star move that put her work into the hands of Jerry Wexler. Wexler had earlier promoted the talents of Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett. He was the one to coin the term "rhythm and blues" to describe the fusion of blues, gospel, soul, and rock that characterized his artists' music (although the term R&B also became sort of a catch-all for newer blues-inspired music by black musicians, whether it was Chuck Berry or Al Green). Wexler quickly recognized that Aretha belonged in the world of R&B, and directed her away from the pop and jazz style she had been stuck in at Columbia. Aiming to cultivate Aretha's sound to its fullest potential, he sent her into Atlantic's Muscle Shoals studios with leading R&B musicians, including Duane Allman and Eric Clapton. The result was "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," a breathy, pain-wracked love song that quickly rose to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the R&B charts. The single was quickly followed by the album of the same name, and the first track on the album was a cover of Otis Redding's rather tame 1965 release, "Respect."
Aretha's rollicking version of "Respect" was anything but tame. With no husband around to distract her, Franklin went into the studio on Valentine's Day 1967 and cut a record that turned into a watershed. The version produced by Wexler (with Franklin's help) included her sisters in the background fiercely but cheerfully singing the suggestive "sock it to me" lines. Wexler added a bridge that King Curtis filled with saxophone magic. But the real change to the song was its monumental reversal of gender roles. A man whining for "a little respect" from his woman was hardly a news item in 1967. But when Aretha flipped the game, she put a different sort of treasure on the table. Aretha issued a direct demand—"sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me." And whatever the sexual connotations, it was 1967, the women's movement was on the rise, and this woman was demanding a little respect. No matter how you cut it, Aretha's version broke ground that Redding's never could. "Aretha added another dimension to the song," says Wexler. "This was almost a feminist clarion" (Bego 88).
"Respect" rose to the top of both the pop and R&B charts and earned Aretha two Grammys. And over time, the song gained even greater recognition. Rolling Stone eventually declared it the fifth greatest song of all time. The Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts ranked it fourth on its list of Songs of the Century. As the tumultuous 1960s wore on, the song became widely recognized as a soulful and urgent call for human dignity.
But the decade was as tumultuous for Aretha as it was for the broader world. Her marriage to Ted White fell apart, ending in divorce in 1969. During the same difficult period, Franklin was arrested twice: once for reckless driving and once for disorderly conduct. In 1969, her father was arrested for marijuana possession, and a conference he arranged for black militants ended in a deadly clash with Detroit police. The struggle for racial justice and against gender violence was real for Aretha, and her plea for respect was grounded in the troubles she'd seen. Aretha's personal life messes, although they are nothing to be envied, were probably a part of the magical chemistry behind "Respect."
Wexler certainly thinks so: "If she didn't live it, she couldn't give it" ("500 Greatest Songs," Rolling Stone, 9 December 2004). And Franklin herself attests that her best recordings are of songs she can identify with deeply. Singing her heart out with her sisters in a tiny studio in Alabama, Franklin recorded a song for a whole generation. "It could be a racial situation, it could be a political situation, it could be just the man-woman situation," says Tom Down, the song's recording engineer (Bego 88).
"Anybody could identify with it."