Contrasting Aretha's Franklin's "Respect" with the original Otis Redding recording of the song may help us better understand Franklin's power.
Redding's version has a march-like quality. The drums set a very steady and heavy beat that is broken only by intermittent horns. Redding makes minimal use of backup singers, relying primarily on the horns to break up his vocals.
Franklin's version is more complex from the start. She still uses horns, but only to create a backdrop for a simple but distinctive guitar riff. And once the vocals start, a piano and back-up vocals, rather than horns, frame the melody. As the song moves into its famous chorus, the backup vocals become even more involved, more central—more than just back-up vocals.
The new break, filled by the sax solo, adds an additional layer to the Franklin version. But it is the dynamic interaction between Aretha and her back-up singers—her sisters Carolyn and Erma—that really separates the original from the cover. And according to most accounts, the vocals were arranged completely by Aretha and Carolyn Franklin, including both the edgy "sock it to me" and the music-stopping spell-out—"R-E-S-P-E-C-T."
Producer Jerry Wexler credits Aretha with the brilliant new arrangement of "Respect." "She walked in with this," he says. "I had no notion. I didn't know what she had in mind. Aretha was terrific at setting up a song the way she wanted it to go. Many of the songs she would bring in—basically the cake was in the oven; all you had to do was bake it…When they came in singing 'Respect,' they had the whole template. They had everything" (Matt Dobkin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Masterpiece, 166).
"You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing."
So wrote Mary J. Blige in a review of Aretha Franklin's career for Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone named Franklin the No. 1 singer of all time, and over the years, responses to her singing and performances have been nothing less than exuberant. For Mary J. Blige – herself a once-in-a-generation vocal talent – Franklin was a huge inspiration.
Aretha could bowl over audiences with powerful, personal songs like "Respect," but a part of her iconic status is that she was able to impress fans again and again and again. People thought her career was in decline after a streak of constant hits declined in the mid-1970s, but then she appeared on a No. 1 R&B hit with Curtis Mayfield in 1976. She hit the charts again in 1982 with Jump To It, and she had singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1994, and 1998. She put out high-charting albums throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s (some were greatest hits and compilations, but the record is still impressive). Since 1985, she has shown up at the top of the Dance/Club Play chart no less than five times. We could go on, but the point is, Aretha Franklin is not just brilliant, she's prolific.
Still, among the volumes of songs and dozens of hits released by Franklin, "Respect" still stands out as her most iconic. Something about the way Aretha interpreted Otis Redding's song made it hers: no one in the world, it seemed, could recreate "Respect" after Franklin shaped the song so perfectly.
Despite being recognized as an iconic hit-maker for decades now, Franklin has been generally very private and very composed in her dealings with the media. She maintains that she loves her work, she appreciates her success, and she respects her fans. Here's a great story from an NPR commentator about Aretha's kind attitude towards her: "Twenty years ago, after a concert you gave at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, I was determined to meet you and to thank you for making me feel special. To get backstage, I told the security guard that I was Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter, and it worked. I was immediately escorted to your dressing room. You greeted me graciously with a sisterly warmth — knowing full well, I'm sure, that I was an impostor. But you never let on. You maintained the stature and dignity befitting your justly earned title as the queen of soul."
And that she is: the Queen of Soul, and a woman who commands, and gives, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.