Fifty years ago, on April 29, 1967, the world first heard the horn blasts and guitar twangs that mark the opening of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” What follows are two and a half remarkable minutes of pop music that would capture an era and define one of the preeminent voices of our time. What makes it so great? We’ll take a cue from the Queen of Soul and spell it out for you.
R – Re-Invention. While it became Aretha’s signature song, her recording of “Respect” was actually a cover. Otis Redding wrote and recorded it a couple of years earlier, and it was a decent-sized hit for him, especially on the R&B charts. But calling Franklin’s version a mere cover or remake is ridiculous. Aretha (whose nickname was “Re”) re-invented the song, re-imagined it, re-everythinged it and made it her own.
E – Essential. “Respect” is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Rolling Stone put it at number five on its list of the 500 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.”
S – Spelling and Sock it to me. What are arguably the most memorable parts of Franklin’s recording weren’t there on the Otis original. Aretha came up with the idea of spelling out the title word (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me”), and she and her sisters Erma and Carolyn, who sang backup on the record, worked out the brilliant interplay between the lead and background vocals. This call and response evokes Aretha’s gospel roots and really makes the track go.
P – Perspective Shift. The original Redding song is about a man demanding respect from his woman when he gets home after a hard day’s work. With minimal changes to the lyrics, Aretha totally flips it to a female perspective, that of a strong woman demanding respect from her man. The second wave of the women’s movement was emerging during the late ‘60s, and Aretha’s song became a feminist anthem.
E – Equality. “Respect” also became associated with the Civil Rights movement and the socially conscious spirit of the era. As Franklin wrote in her autobiography, “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…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.”
C – Curtis, as in King Curtis. The instrumental bridge was another thing Aretha and her producers added to the tune, and the tenor sax solo was played by the great King Curtis. Aretha herself played piano, as she often did, and studio aces like Tommy Cogbill (bass) and Gene Chrisman (drums) were also on board for the session, which took place in New York on Valentine’s Day, 1967.
T – T.C.B. This abbreviation for “Taking Care of Business” was another bit Aretha and company added to the song. They had to rhyme something with “find out what it means to me,” and “T.C.B.” was a popular expression in African-American communities at the time. (It later was adopted by Elvis Presley as his personal motto.) Besides “T.C.B.” and “sock it to me,” another inspired bit of slang appears when Aretha demands: “give me my propers.” This term, meaning “due respect,” foreshadows the use of “props” in rap and hip-hop many years later.
“Respect” is one of those songs we’ve heard so many times that it’s hard to hear it with fresh ears. But take some time today—just a little bit—and give it a listen. Then give it the respect it deserves.