How Aretha Franklin Created “Respect”

The story of the greatest cover song of all time and the quintessential empowerment anthem.

A black-and-white photo of Aretha Franklin at a piano.
Aretha Franklin performs at a jazz festival. Gamma/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“The call for respect went from a request to a demand,” Jerry Wexler has said. “[It] started off as a soul song and wound up as a kind of national anthem.” Wexler, who signed Aretha Franklin to Atlantic Records, was describing to her biographer David Ritz how Franklin transformed a minor 1965 hit by Otis Redding into a statement carved into the Mount Rushmore of American music. There, the letters R-E-S-P-E-C-T stand eternally in solid granite. While Wexler (whose own death came a decade ago this week) nominally produced that February 1967 session, there’s no question it was the as-yet-uncrowned Queen of Soul who was at the helm of perhaps the greatest cover song in history, both musically and conceptually.

It became Aretha’s first No. 1 hit and, as Wexler said, “virtually defined the national consciousness at that moment in history,” when the civil rights movement was near its height and the push for women’s liberation was just beginning. As Ritz notes, the track’s arrival on the charts on April 29 that year came the day after Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight-boxing title for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War—his proclamation that he owed no deference to a nation that never had respected his own people.

Fifty-plus years later, “Respect” remains a song that lives in the world’s mouth, ready to the air in domestic arguments and political protests alike (including the 2016 women’s marches). It literally spells out a fundamental human need, in a way mainstream pop had not heard before, with both maximum dignity and maximum playfulness. It does it in the names of women, people of color, and anyone else exhausted and exasperated with being treated as less than a full person. All of this somehow packed into 2½ minutes that begin with horns and a string-bending guitar riff and the big bang of “WHAT you want” (question mark, or exclamation point?) and then expand into a universe with no discernible terminal horizon.

As music lovers everywhere mourn and honor Aretha Franklin in the weeks to come, we’ll rightly delve deeper into her recorded legacy. We’ll recover underappreciated treasures from her years somewhat adrift on Columbia Records in the first half of the 1960s. We’ll be knocked out all over again by her 1972 live gospel album Amazing Grace, which permanently clarified what put the soul in soul music. And we’ll pluck from the neglected highlights of her later disco, 1980s pop, and other mixed attempts to ride the roiling currents of modern R&B (for instance, her gorgeous 1998 collaboration with Lauryn Hill, the anti-abuse anthem “A Rose Is Still a Rose”).

But as the song implores, just because it’s always been there for us, we should not take “Respect” itself for granted. This is, after all, where Aretha established forever her identity—the one that put her and millions of listeners on a first-name basis—and her legacy. It’s also where, just a little bit, just a little bit, she altered the state of things to come.

In retrospect, it seems like a performance she’d been preparing for her whole young life, and also one that might not have turned out quite as it did if not for some very particular circumstances. The granddaughter of Southern sharecroppers, Aretha famously grew up in a royal family of the black American church as one of the children of renowned Detroit minister C.L. Franklin, whose preaching style was as full of growls, moans, and whoops as the singing of the gospel choirs at his services. He was a progressive friend and ally of Martin Luther King Jr., and like King, he excelled in his sermons at finding scriptural metaphors for black Americans’ oppression and yearnings for freedom. By her early teens, Aretha was going on the road with her father and performing at his events, and sometimes on her own on church tours alongside the young Dr. King.

It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that Aretha’s flip of Redding’s more conventional, male-dominant song of domestic conflict and desire into a hymn of sexual and political liberation paralleled the creative subversion in those sermons. Her most distinctive rewrite, the addition of the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Find out what it means to me” bridge—which it’s still shocking to recall was completely absent from the original—has a touch of a preacher’s pedagogy, the moment when the celebrant might focus in on a scriptural passage and muse, “Think of this word, ‘respect.’ What does the Lord mean when he uses it? What does it mean, for example, within your own home?” But to keep proceedings from getting too heady, she immediately cuts in with language from the street: “Take care, TCB” (meaning “take care of business”) and “sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me” (meaning … well, that’s up to you).

Likewise, Aretha’s ways of expanding and exploding the song’s rhythms and melodies drew on the techniques of the gospel singers she was close to and admired from both church and the family salon, such as Marion Williams, Mahalia Jackson, and her father’s longtime lover, Clara Ward of the Ward Singers. (On Aretha’s gospel grooming and inheritances, there’s no more delightful and enlightening read than gospel-scene insider and scholar Anthony Heilbut’s essay “Aretha: How She Got Over,” from his 2012 collection The Fan Who Knew Too Much.)

The church is on this record not only in the ways Aretha herself digs into lyrics and melodies, breaking apart syllables and turning phrases into chants, but in the backup vocals provided by her sisters Carolyn and Erma (each talented solo performers in their own right, whom Aretha sometimes unfairly treated like rivals). They echo and approve and goad the leader on here, like both a gospel choir and a congregation that’s been filled with the Spirit and is shouting back to the pulpit. But in keeping with the way that soul translated gospel into secular terms, this is a congregation not of repentant sinners but of fed-up and defiant women, not only the ones on the recording but anyone out there within hearing distance of a record player or radio. As the critic Ann Powers has remarked, this version of “Respect” is not just delivering a message: As within the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement soon to come, it’s conducting a conversation.

Arguably, this was a subject on which Aretha’s own consciousness was not without the need for a little raising. As devoted as she was to her father, he reportedly had a history of violent outbursts, and definitely of profligate womanizing, which likely had to do with why Aretha’s mother, Barbara, (herself a singer) left and moved away to Buffalo when Aretha was just 6. Barbara died only a few years later, which many family intimates in Ritz’s book name as a probable cause for the underlying ache that would mark the shy young girl’s voice and personality ever after. During her teen years on the gospel circuit, Aretha also had two children by two different fathers whose identities have never been confirmed.

Then, when she resolved to follow in (among others) Sam Cooke’s path and cross over from gospel to pop and R&B, it was mostly with her father’s blessing—except for her choice to put herself under the management and into a marriage with a man named Ted White, whom fellow Detroit singing star Bettye LaVette would later describe to Ritz (with surprising approval) as a smooth “gentleman pimp.” Etta James, who compared the couple to Ike and Tina Turner, said, “We were hoping these cats would choose us and sell us and show us how to get over. That was the good side. The bad side was when the devil popped outta them and they thought they could control us forever. That’s when the violence started.”

So it was with White. While his connections and ambition certainly were helpful to her initially, his effect on her repertoire during the Columbia years was dubious—against the better judgment of her first producer, the legendary talent scout John Hammond, the couple maintained that because Aretha could sing anything, she ought to sing everything. They aimed to compete not just with R&B hit-makers but with “prestige” white stars such as Barbra Streisand, making for a confusing artistic profile. In their defense, this was the early 1960s, when the direction of a lot of strands of pop seemed up for grabs. But White also seemed to have a bad influence on her alcohol use and her finances. Worst of all, he allegedly beat her, even in public. (They would eventually divorce in 1969.)

White’s violent streak also contributed to a notorious incident in the immediate lead-up to the recording of “Respect,” when the couple was flown out to Alabama to record at the FAME Studios with the renowned Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. After a successful first day recording the title track and first single of the album that would become I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, White got drunk and got into a racially charged fistfight with cantankerous FAME Studios head Rick Hall. The couple left Alabama and reportedly separated for a period—Wexler spent 10 days trying to contact a missing Aretha, despairing of whether the project was over before it had begun. She eventually surfaced and convened in New York with the Muscle Shoals musicians, with White absent. Starting out with a more sensual battle-of-the-sexes manifesto, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” they found the magic hadn’t abandoned them. The following week they got around to “Respect.”

Many fans and journalists have assumed that Wexler brought the song to Aretha, in line with standard production practices at the time, but in fact she’d heard Redding’s version years before on the radio and had been performing it live for some time. She’d worked out with her sisters how to reverse the gender point of view, and she came into the studio with her own take on the rhythm of the song already in place.

“That stop-and-stutter syncopation was something she invented,” Wexler told Ritz. “She showed the rhythm section I had shipped up from Alabama—Jimmy Johnson, Tommy Coghill, and Roger Hawkins—how to do it. … But the creation of the background vocals and ingenious wordplay was done on the spot in the studio.”

It’s hard not to wonder if the whole effort didn’t blaze extra bright as a message to the singer’s errant husband, but Aretha herself always resisted such personal interpretations. Indeed, she was always incensed when her private life turned up in the press, which is part of why reports of her illnesses in recent years remained so vague for so long.

For his part, when Redding heard Aretha’s “Respect,” he famously declared, “That girl took my song from me.” But contrary to many accounts over the years (dating back to the first major history of soul, Peter Guralnick’s 1986 Sweet Soul Music), Wexler insisted to Ritz that Redding said it with appreciation. “And then he asked me [to] play it again, and then a third time. The smile never left his face.” Perhaps Redding felt he owed Aretha one: His producer Phil Walden later told Ritz that Redding’s own iconic 1966 recording of “Try a Little Tenderness” had been “trying to channel Aretha” from her 1962 take on The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin, despite the two versions’ radically different arrangements.

In a manner like few pop songs before it (Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” is the rare precedent that comes to mind), Aretha’s “Respect” was an anthem of female empowerment, one that emphasized resistance and self-possession rather than just suffering and forbearance. This continued with Aretha’s own version of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” later that same year—the song that brought Barack Obama to tears in the viral Kennedy Center Honors video of 2015—and expanded in the 1970s with hits such as Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” and Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” (later a hit again for Aretha acolyte and fellow gospel child Whitney Houston).
With Madonna in the 1980s, the Lilith Fair and neo-soul 1990s, and the pop-diva triumphs of the 2000s and 2010s, it’s established itself as a permanent pop subgenre—sometimes even the dominant one, for instance at the turn of this decade, when Jody Rosen wrote in Rolling Stone, “The Top 40 is not merely by women. Increasingly, it’s of women: packed with club-thumping megahits about she-wolves and single ladies and fame monsters.” Aretha returned the nod to some of her heirs, the youngest of them Adele, with 2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, the second-to-last studio album she ever recorded.

Few of these figures can match Aretha’s pipes or her finesse, but a few have been catching up with her political and emotional sophistication. What was Beyoncé’s Lemonade, after all, but an album-long elaboration of the themes of “Respect”—though updated to an era of sexual frankness that makes the once eyebrow-raising “sock it to me” mantra sound as quaint as a sock hop? “Miss Franklin,” as journalists and even studio collaborators often addressed her, might have scowled over the filthy ways current hip-hop stars such as Cardi B and Nicki Minaj (who surpassed the Queen of Soul’s record number of appearances on the Hot 100 last year) choose to assert their feminine power. But when they “put [their] thing down, flip it, and reverse it,” to quote Missy Elliott, they are all in debt to the spin that Aretha put on Otis Redding’s number.

The song still has America’s number, too. There’s a sharper pang to its singer’s passing at a juncture when respect seems in especially thin supply in its political culture. After more than 50 years, the planet seems far away from running out of fools, and it’s down one more inimitable genius.

Read more in Slate about Aretha Franklin:
“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin Dies at 76
Aretha Franklin Was the Defining Voice of the 20th Century
• “Rest in Peace, Soul Sister”: Musicians and Admirers Pay Tribute to Aretha Franklin