The Secret History Of Aretha Franklin's "Respect"

When you think of Aretha Franklin, you think of her belting out the word "respect" letter by letter. Franklin's quintessential song is sung from the perspective of a woman who feels confident and self-assured in what she has to offer her partner. It's bold. It's strong. It's the anthem we should all sing when we need to feel a boost of confidence.
But "Respect" wasn't always the feminist song we now recognize it to be. In fact, the song wasn't initially Franklin's. "Respect" was written by R & B singer Otis Redding. When the same lyrics in "Respect" are sung from a man's perspective, trust us — the song takes on a whole new meaning.
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Fifty years ago today, "Respect" topped the Billboard charts, and emblazoned itself onto the public consciousness. In honor of this anniversary, here's the story of how Aretha Franklin turned "Respect" into one of the most influential songs of all time.
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Otis Redding first sang "Respect" in 1965.

Redding's electrifying version of "Respect" is just as catchy as Franklin's, and even features an entire horns section. But slight variations in the lyrics make Redding's "Respect" an entirely different song than the one you know.

The songs' philosophical difference comes to a head in the chorus. Redding's chorus says, "Hey little girl, you're so sweeter than honey / And I am about to just give you all my money / All I'm asking for / Is a little respect when I come home."

The concept of respect, in Redding's song, is transactional. The man comes home from work, and expects proper treatment from his partner before handing over his paycheck. With just a little superficial respect, the woman can extract anything she wants from Redding: "What you want / Honey you've got it."
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A whole new concept of respect is born in 1967.

Legendary music producer Jerry Wexler decided Redding's song might work as a crossover hit for Franklin. On February 14, 1967, Franklin's take on "Respect" dropped.

Franklin radically rearranged, and reinterpreted, Redding's song. Her version featured backup singers, the signature line "sock it to me," and most significantly, a spelling of the word "respect," as if to say: we're going to define this word, step-by-step.

When Franklin sang "Respect," she gave voice to the woman waiting at home in Redding's version.
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"Respect" gets a new definition.

Gone is the financial transaction present in Redding's version. Instead, Franklin's "respect" is a concept not tethered to money, but rather to decency.

In 1999, Franklin appeared on WHYY's Fresh Air and addressed her influential song.

Franklin said, "When I recorded it, it was pretty much a male-female kind of thing. And more in a general sense, from person-to-person — I'm going to give you respect and I'd like to have that respect back, or I expect respect to be given back."
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The powerful legacy of a powerful song.

Franklin's "Respect" is about an individual woman demanding a certain quality of behavior from her partner, but it also expresses a universal theme. It's no surprise, then, that the powerful anthem generated strong ties to the civil rights and feminist movements.

Franklin addressed the song's legacy in her autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots.

"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. 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," Franklin wrote.
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How did Franklin think to include the phrase "sock it to me?"

Franklin also addressed the mysterious phrase at the heart of "Respect" while speaking with Terry Gross.

"My sister Carolyn and I got together and — I was living in a small apartment on the west side of Detroit, piano by the window, watching the cars go by — and we came up with that infamous line, the 'sock it to me' line. Some of the girls were saying that to the fellas, like 'sock it to me' in this way or 'sock it to me' in that way. It's not sexual. It was nonsexual, just a cliché line," she said.
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What was Otis Redding's take?

Redding's tepid and bitter response was on full display during his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

By way of introducing the song "Respect," Redding said, "This song is a song a girl took away from me. But I'm still going to do it anyway."

Redding died in a plane crash later that year.
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