'Respect' Wasn't A Feminist Anthem Until Aretha Franklin Made It One | KUOW News and Information

'Respect' Wasn't A Feminist Anthem Until Aretha Franklin Made It One

Feb 14, 2017
Originally published on February 14, 2017 7:21 pm

On this day 50 years ago, 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. She remembered how it all came together when she spoke with WHYY's Fresh Air in 1999.

"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."

Franklin's "Respect" became a transformative moment — not only in her career but also in the women's rights movement and the civil rights movement. Which makes one wonder: What did Redding think of all this?

"Well, he didn't like it," says Mark Ribowsky, author of the biography Dreams To Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul. Speaking to NPR in 2015, Ribowsky said Redding eventually accepted that "Respect" no longer belonged to him — and that you can see it for yourself in his 1967 performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

"He comes onstage and he goes, 'This next song is a song that a girl took away from me' — but he says it with the Otis charm, a little glint in the eye," Ribowski said. "And Otis couldn't begrudge her that."

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."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On this day 50 years ago, a little-known gospel singer from Detroit went into a New York City recording studio to try to jumpstart her career.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And, man, did it work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARETHA FRANKLIN SONG, "RESPECT")

MCEVERS: No one saw it coming, but the song they laid down on Valentine's Day 1967 would go on to become one of the greatest recordings of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) What you want, Baby, I got it. What you need - do you know I've got it? All I'm asking is for a little respect when you come home.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Just a little bit.

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Hey, baby...

SIEGEL: "Respect" hit the top of the charts four months later and turned Aretha Franklin into a feminist champion. It was actually a clever gender-bending of a song originally written and recorded by Otis Redding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Hey, little girl. You're sweeter than honey. And I'm about to give you all of my money. But all I want you to do is just give it, give it - respect when I come home...

SIEGEL: Otis Redding's "Respect" reinforced the traditional family structure of the day - man works all day, brings money home to wife, demands her respect in return. Aretha Franklin blew that structure to bits.

MCEVERS: First, she spelled it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T - find out what it means to me. R-E-S-P-E-C-T...

MCEVERS: Redding's song doesn't do that. It also doesn't have the backup singers and the way they interacted with each other.

SIEGEL: So much of what made "Respect" a hit and an anthem came from Aretha Franklin's re-arrangement. She recalled how it all came together when she spoke with WHYY's Fresh Air in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRANKLIN: My sister Carolyn and I got together and 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Take care, TCB, oh...

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Sock it to me. Sock it to me. Sock it to me.

FRANKLIN: It was a cliche of the day. And some of the girls were saying that to the fellows - like, sock it to me in this way or sock it to me that way. It's not sexual. It was non-sexual, just a cliche line.

MCEVERS: Aretha Franklin's "Respect" became a transformative moment not only in her career but also in the women's rights movement and the civil rights movement.

SIEGEL: Which makes you wonder, what did Otis Redding think of all this?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARK RIBOWSKI: Well, he didn't like it (laughter).

SIEGEL: Mark Ribowski is a biographer of Otis Redding. He told NPR in 2015 that Redding eventually accepted that "Respect" no longer belonged to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RIBOWSKI: I mean if you see the old "Monterey," Pennebaker film, you know, he comes on stage, and he goes...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONTEREY POP")

REDDING: This next song is a song that a girl took away from me.

RIBOWSKI: But he says it with the Otis charm, the little glint in the eye. And Otis couldn't begrudge her that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Oh, your kiss is sweeter than honey. But guess what - so is my money. All I need is just a little respect when you get home, baby.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Just a little bit.

MCEVERS: Rolling Stone called "Respect" one of the top five greatest songs of all time. They wrote, Franklin wasn't asking for anything. She sang from higher ground, a woman calling for 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.

SIEGEL: Happy Valentine's Day - Aretha Franklin's "Respect" recorded 50 years ago today.

(SOUNDBITE OR ARETHA FRANKLIN'S SONG, "RESPECT")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) It's what I want. And respect is what I need. Oh, sock it to me. Oh, to me - lay that on me. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I need - oh, yes I do. Oh, come on. Yes, honey - little bit - yeah, just want a little - just want a little. Oh, yes, I do. I don't want much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.