July 11, 1967
“Respect” by Aretha Franklin
#1 on the Billboard Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles chart, May 20 – July 14, 1967
More than a decade passed between Aretha Franklin’s debut album, 1956’s Songs of Faith, and the song that heralded her as the Queen of Soul, 1967’s “I Never a Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” Not only did “I Never Loved a Man” mark her debut into the pop Top 10, it was also her first #1 on the R&B charts, a position it held for seven weeks.
Franklin cemented her reign immediately: Only one week after “I Never Loved a Man” fell off the top of the R&B charts (briefly replaced by Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack”), she returned to #1 with an even bigger hit — one whose themes dovetailed with the progressive social movements of the ’60s and would become one of the decade’s defining songs.
Although “Respect” has become Franklin’s signature song, she was neither the first artist to record it nor the first to make it a hit. Stax star Otis Redding, who wrote the song, released his version as a single in 1965, where it made the R&B Top 5 and the pop Top 40.
It’s one of the few moments of relative levity in his discography of anguished ballads, with a bright, uptempo horn riff and a catchy “hey-hey-hey” refrain. Redding’s wrenching vocals, however, pleading for “just a little respect” in return for the money he brings home to his woman, fit “Respect” squarely as a piece of his “Mr. Pitiful” persona.
As solidly as Redding’s original stands on its own, it shrivels next to Franklin’s massive, hook-packed version, which seems as if it could consume Redding’s in a single bite. Franklin’s “Respect” is more an answer song than a straight cover, changing some lyrics and recontextualizing others to rebut Redding’s self-centered whine. You’re looking for respect? she asks. Respect is a two-way street, honey.
Franklin and company — producer Jerry Wexler, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and backup singers (and Aretha’s sisters) Carolyn and Erma Franklin — tighten the melody until it’s as controlled, compact, and direct as a bullet. They also added a few memorable flourishes guaranteed to burrow the message firmly into listeners’ skulls, from the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Find out what it means to me” chorus to the refrains of “just a little bit” and “sock it to me.”
The cherry on top, of course, is Franklin’s fiery vocal: It’s not hysterical or mean-spirited, but the voice of a woman who’s had to put up with nonsense and repression from men her entire life and has finally had enough. Unlike Redding, she’s not begging for respect but demanding it, or at insisting on least a small fraction of what she’s been owed over the course of her lifetime.
Not only was “Respect” and Franklin’s performance powerful in its own right, but her assertive attitude served as an inspiration and a call to action for women, African-Americans and other minorities, and anyone else who’d had enough of being treated as second-class citizens.
Yet, what makes Franklin’s “Respect” so effective as a protest song is that it isn’t explicitly political. It can be enjoyed as a well-made pop song or it can be recognized as a message of empowerment. By not spelling out the meaning of the song (apart from the literal “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”), Franklin lets listeners “find out what it means” for themselves.
“Respect” clearly struck a chord with listeners. It spent eight weeks atop the R&B charts, as well as two weeks at #1 on the Hot 100. For half a decade afterward, nearly all of Franklin’s singles made the pop Top 40 (usually in the Top 10 or Top 20) and the R&B Top 5, including 18 more number ones after “Respect.”
Many of Franklin’s subsequent hits were more straightforward love songs, but others — including 1967’s “Chain of Fools” and 1968’s “Think,” with its cries of “freedom!” — replicated her signature song’s mixture of personal and social resonance. Franklin may have left gospel years earlier, but she continued to use her music as a platform to inspire.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.