How Aretha Franklin Turned a Sexist Song into a Feminist Anthem

R-E-S-P-E-C-T is a Cover?

For me, born in the early 80s, Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit ‘Respect’ had always been there. A feminist anthem. A symbol of both the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. A foot stomping, hip shaking, finger guns inducing fire straight from the belly of a powerhouse woman who wasn’t gonna take no shit from nobody. A demand for equality, for change. Growing up I’d always assume the song had been written by, or at least originally sung by, Aretha herself. I’d never heard a singer own a song like that, I’m not sure I have since.

Suffice to say I was surprised when I learned the song was actually originally written and recorded by another famous 1960s soul singer, Otis Redding. Redding originally released the song in 1965. It was a successful song for him too, and an important one for his career at the time, however Franklin’s 1967 cover has now so completely eclipsed Redding’s that many people do not know that another version of the song ever existed. Other artists have done covers of the song too, but It’s Franklin’s absolute banger of a performance that we all know and love.

Aretha Franklin in 1968

Aretha Franklin was born in 1942 in Detroit and began her music career in 1960 at the age of 18. However, she did not find the kind of phenomenal success that saw her outshine her peers until after signing with Atlantic Records in 1966. She released a string of hits throughout the late 60s, of which ‘Respect’ was one, and by 1970 she’d truly earned her title, ‘The Queen of Soul’.

Her success was forged amongst a period of intense social and political change. ‘Respect’ was released in the summer of 1967. Four years after the publication of ‘The Feminine Mystique’, a book widely considered to have spurred the feminist movement of the 1960s, three years after Martin Luther King had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the civil rights movement, and right in the middle of the raging Vietnam War, Franklin’s ‘Respect’ struck a chord with just about everybody. 

Flipping the Script

Artists re-recording and re-releasing other artist’s songs was commonplace at the time, and is now, it’s nothing to write home about. Some of the most successful hits of all time are covers. What made Franklin’s ‘Respect’ unique was that it completely changed the message of the original song, and did so in a way that reflected the social changes of the time succinctly and powerfully.

When you compare the two versions, you notice the musical differences straight away, but what you may not notice had you not been looking out for it, are the slight lyrical changes. ‘What you want / honey, you got it’ in Redding’s version becomes ‘What you want, you know I got it’ in Franklin’s. ‘You can do me wrong, honey, while I’m gone’ becomes ‘I ain’t gonna do you wrong, cause I don’t wanna’.

Those linguistic differences, however small, make a huge impact. They completely flip the song on its head, dramatically changing its narrative. This was once a song about a man asking a woman to ‘respect’ him in the old fashioned patriarchal way – cook him a meal, take off his boots, give him a massage. After all, he’s been working all day and he’s prepared to share his hard earned income with her, surely it’s the least he could ask? By the standards of the 1960s, this was completely acceptable. Today we would call it sexist, oppressive, misogynistic. Franklin’s version became a woman not asking, rather demanding, the respect she deserves as a human being, and has been denied for so long, not only from her partner but from society. 

One of the most notable differences which played a huge part in changing the narrative of the song was the addition of backing vocals to Franklin’s version. They were sung and partially written by Franklin’s sisters, Erma and Carolyn. Repeating phrases like ‘just a little bit’, ‘sock it to me’ and ‘re- re- re-’ (which incidentally not only spells the first part of the word ‘respect’ but was also Aretha Franklin’s nickname), simply turned up the sass to eleven.

Yes, the horn lines were changed too and the drums played an entirely different beat, but the musical changes are not what’s important here. She managed, with her attitude, her wit, her soul, and importantly, with the help of her sisters, to take a song that portrayed this tired old stereotype and completely turned it around to represent the exact opposite thing. Her version transformed the message of the song, flipped it on its head, and subversively attacked the patriarchy. Franklin had turned a sexist song into a feminist anthem.

After Redding heard Franklin’s rendition for the first time, he told journalist and producer Jerry Wexler: “This girl has taken that song from me. Ain’t no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her.” Everyone agreed. What is perhaps most telling about that quote, is his referral to Franklin as a ‘girl’.

Tragically, Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash in December of that same year, 1967, just a few months after the release of Franklin’s ‘Respect’, and only 3 days after having written what was to become his most enduring hit, not to mention the first posthumous number one single in US history, ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’.

The R-E-S-P-E-C-T Bit

Otis Redding, shortly before his death in 1967

Arguably the most obvious part of Franklin’s ‘Respect’ that is absent from Redding’s version, and the most instantly recognisable part of the song, is the part where Franklin spells out the word R-E-S-P-E-C-T. She also adds the line ‘find out what it means to me’. The addition of this short section could have been the magic little ingredient that made her version so incredibly successful. According to engineer Tom Dowd, spelling out R-E-S-P-E-C-T was her sister Carolyn’s idea.

The full bit goes like this…
R-E-S-P-E-C-T / find out what it means to me / R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Take care TCB‘ (this incidentally stands for ‘taking care of business’) Astonishingly, that bit takes all of 8 seconds. The full song is only 02:37.

Those 2 minutes and 37 seconds, maybe even just those 8 seconds in the middle, have come to represent the feminist movement of the 1960s, immediately and fully, in the minds of millions of people. All from a song that originally represented exactly the ideology feminism sought to challenge. Now if that’s not deserving of a little respect, just a little bit, I don’t know what is.

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