On February 14, 1967, a little-known gospel singer from Detroit went into a New York City recording studio to try to jump-start her career. No one saw it coming, but the song Aretha Franklin laid down on Valentine’s Day 1967 would go on to become one of the greatest recordings of all time.
“Respect” hit the top of the charts four months later and turned Aretha Franklin into a feminist champion. The track was actually a clever gender-bending of a song by Otis Redding, whose original reinforced the traditional family structure of the time: Man works all day, brings money home to wife and demands her respect in return.
Franklin’s version blew that structure to bits. For one, Redding’s song doesn’t spell out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” like Franklin’s does. It also doesn’t have the backup singers and their clever interplay. So much of what made “Respect” a hit — and an anthem — came from Franklin’s rearrangement.
“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,” she told host Terry Gross. “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.”
Rolling Stone named “Respect” one of the top five greatest songs of all time, saying: “Franklin wasn’t asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it.”
Franklin’s cover was a landmark for the feminist movement, and is often considered as one of the best songs of the R&B era, earning her two Grammy Awards in 1968 for “Best Rhythm & Blues Recording” and “Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female”, and was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2002, the Library of Congress honored Franklin’s version by adding it to the National Recording Registry. It was placed number five on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Franklin’s rendition found greater success than the original, spending two weeks atop the Billboard Pop Singles chart, and eight weeks on the Billboard Black Singles chart. The changes in lyrics and production drove Franklin’s version to become an anthem for the increasingly large Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. She altered the lyrics to represent herself, a strong woman demanding respect from her man.] Franklin’s demands for ‘Respect’ were “associated either with black freedom struggles or women’s liberation.”
“‘Respect’ Wasn’t A Feminist Anthem Until Aretha Franklin Made It One“, NPR Music News, February 14, 2017.