Aretha Franklin and Respect:
As a general rule we will begin with the original version of a song, and then consider subsequent cover(s) of the same song. However this time we will begin with the cover, as in this particular case the “cover” has arguably eclipsed the original version.
Aretha Franklin is rightfully called the “Queen of Soul.” One of the most successful and iconic artists of her era, she was ranked #1 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. She was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she has sold over 75 million records, won 18 Grammys, and had over 100 songs listed on the Billboard charts, including 17 top-10 pop songs and 21 R&B singles that reached #1. No other female artist even approaches those numbers.
Aretha’s father was a charismatic preacher who moved to Detroit when Aretha was five. She began to sing in her father’s church and accompany him on gospel caravan tours. There she met Sam Cooke, who was in the process of switching from gospel to pop music. Cooke mentored Aretha and introduced her to music-industry executives. John Hammond signed her to a record deal with Columbia Records, where she enjoyed some limited success. Hammond had a terrific pedigree, having previously produced Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday; a year after signing Aretha he would sign Bob Dylan, then a decade later Bruce Springsteen. With Hammond in her corner, stardom seemed like a “can’t-miss proposition” for Aretha. But Columbia seemed unable to determine a niche for the young artist, primarily because they had her singing old standards instead of exploiting her affinity for gospel music. Aretha herself was reluctant to apply gospel techniques in pop music, for fear of upsetting her father, her friends, and her faith. The notion that rhythm and blues pitted “God’s music vs. the Devil’s music” was a powerful one, and strongly influenced Aretha in the early phase of her career.
This all changed in 1967, when three great things happened for Aretha. First, she switched labels from Columbia to Atlantic Records; second, she was introduced to the Muscle Shoals musicians; and third she met producer Jerry Wexler.
Wexler had been a successful journalist whose beat included black music. He successfully convinced Billboard to rename their patently-offensive category “Race Records” with a term that he coined, “Rhythm and Blues.” At the same time, Wexler convinced Billboard to rename their “Hillbilly” category to “Country and Western”. Like many people with experience in the music business, Wexler told himself “Pop music doesn’t seem that daunting — I bet I could produce this stuff.” Not only was Wexler correct, he turned out to have a fantastic feel for the music, the good fortune to connect with record executive Ahmet Ertegun, and an ability to spot and nurture great musical talent. Wexler’s stable of artists included Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and Dire Straits. What can you say about a guy whose request for an epitaph on his tombstone was “More bass.” What a mensch! Here is a photo of Wexler with Aretha from around 1974.
In February 1967, Wexler brought Aretha and her sisters Carolyn and Erma into the Atlantic Records studios along with the Muscle Shoals musicians, a group that he had helped found. Wexler believed that Otis Redding’s song Respect had considerable cross-over potential, and the group embarked on a major re-working of the song. Apparently Carolyn suggested spelling out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” and she and Erma provided the backup vocals; those iconic choruses are forever burned into our memory – “just a little bit, just a little bit” — “sockittome- sockittome- sockittome- sockittome” – “re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-spect”. Wexler added a bridge featuring King Curtis on saxophone. The lyrics also received a lot of attention, as they shifted the focus of the song to a strong female dealing with her undeserving man. The song finishes with a litany of her complaints, belted out in Aretha’s inimitable gospel style:
Whoa, babe (just a little bit)
A little respect (just a little bit)
I get tired (just a little bit)
Keep on tryin’ (just a little bit)
You’re runnin’ out of foolin’ (just a little bit)
And I ain’t lyin’ (just a little bit)
(re, re, re, re) ‘spect
When you come home (re, re, re ,re)
Or you might walk in (respect, just a little bit)
And find out I’m gone (just a little bit)
I got to have (just a little bit)
A little respect (just a little bit)
The resulting product is a classic, nearly perfect R&B song. The combination of Aretha’s thundering gospel-inspired vocals, together with the Muscle Shoals horns and woodwinds and sassy backup vocals from the Franklin sisters, is well-nigh irresistible. Once released, the song shot up both the pop and R&B charts, reaching #1 on both lists (talk about “cross-over”)! But more than that, Aretha’s Respect became a feminist anthem. The sentiments expressed in the song resonated strongly with ideals of the burgeoning women’s rights and feminist movements. And how better to express those ideas than through Aretha Franklin’s powerful vocals, backed up by the ‘hooks’ in her sisters’ unforgettable one-liners?
Here is a video of a live performance by Aretha in 1968. Both the video and audio quality leave much to be desired, but this is an upbeat live performance within a year of the release of the record.
I’m not sure, but I suspect that may be Aretha’s sisters Carolyn and Erma singing backup in this video. Apparently they frequently accompanied Aretha on tour in the early days, and it looks like them. The tempo in the live version is much faster than the studio recording, which is a lot more relaxed. But forget about the quality of this video – the whole point of rock ‘n roll is that it is best enjoyed as live performance. The audience at this performance is obviously having a great time! You can always go back and listen to the album, where you can appreciate the impressive sound and balance that can be achieved in the studio. Remember that there is an infinite difference between attending a live performance and watching someone lip-synch a recording.
And here is a Spotify link to the audio of the 1967 record by Aretha Franklin, from her Atlantic debut album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.
Aretha’s work with Jerry Wexler not only re-started her career, it propelled her into the public eye as if launched by a rocket. This was followed up by a series of classic songs with great production values, making Aretha Franklin the iconic figure that she remains.
Aretha has won nearly every imaginable honor in the music business, and she is greatly respected by her peers, but her personal life has been marked by challenges and setbacks. Aretha’s father C.L. Franklin had a scandalous reputation as a womanizer, and there are allegations that he fathered a child by a 13-year old girl. Aretha herself had her first child shortly after turning 13 and her second at age 14, and rumors abound regarding the identities of the anonymous fathers. Her father was shot and became temporarily comatose after a home robbery in 1979, and her sisters Carolyn and Erma died of cancer in 1988 and 2002, respectively. Aretha was the victim of reportedly rather violent domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband. She has had several health issues, some of which were related to her long but eventually successful struggle to stop smoking. This was clearly detrimental to her voice, though efforts to quit her two-pack-a-day habit were also correlated with rapid weight gain. She is a living national treasure and we are fortunate that she is still performing today.
Otis Redding and Respect:
Otis Redding grew up in Macon, Georgia and his early musical career was influenced by another Macon native, Little Richard, as Otis hung around with members of Richard’s backup band The Upsetters. At one point he drove his band-mate Johnny Jenkins to a recording session at Stax Record Studios (Otis had a driver’s license, which his friend lacked). While he was there, Redding asked if he could audition, as there was time remaining in the recording session. The session musicians were skeptical; a guy comes in off the street and requests an audition? But then Otis sang These Arms of Mine. We hope that Jenkins obtained a driver’s license, because his later career in music might have included driving Otis Redding around!
Otis Redding’s Respect was recorded in July 1965 at STAX Records studios in Memphis. Stax was an amazing record company, formed by Jim STewart and his sister Estelle AXton (the studio name combines the first two letters of both owners’ names). Here’s a photo of the two of them.
Don’t be fooled by their “white-bread” complexions. Jim and Estelle had a genuine love for an eclectic variety of Memphis regional music. Their company was a welcoming multi-racial organization right from the start, one of the few record studios that deliberately bucked the harsh color bar of the times. The “house band” that backed many of the STAX records was Booker T and the MG’s, consisting of keyboardist Booker T Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson. In addition to this group, Isaac Hayes also played keyboards on Respect. Redding had originally written the song for his friend Speedo Sims, but when Sims and his band were unable to record a decent version of the song, they both agreed that Otis would give it a try, and the rest is history.
Initially, Otis Redding’s success came primarily through R&B recordings for black audiences. However some record executives, and in particular Jerry Wexler, thought that Redding’s music had the potential to reach a much broader audience. In 1967 this was triumphantly demonstrated when Aretha Franklin’s cover of Respect hit #1 on the pop charts. At that point, Redding began receiving considerably wider exposure. When Jerry Wexler heard of plans for a major pop festival in Monterey, CA, he pushed hard to get Otis Redding on the program. Monterey Pop turned out to be one of the most influential festivals in pop music history. It served as the launching point for the careers of several major artists including Redding, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
Here is video of Otis Redding’s electrifying high-voltage performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. It contains two songs: first, Shake followed by Respect, which appears just after the 3-minute point in the video. Otis is backed by Booker T and the MGs and the Bar-Kays.
And here is a Spotify link to the studio version of Respect by Otis Redding.
Although Otis Redding’s original version of Respect has been overshadowed by Aretha’s cover, the original is an excellent R&B song in its own right, featuring Redding’s inimitable vocals. His growling voice, visible intensity and staccato style are perfectly attuned to Redding’s soul music. His mannerisms, together with rather jerky motions of his body when he sang, were attributed by some to the fact that Otis was extremely shy. Redding’s original version of Respect prominently features a hard-driving horn and saxophone section. One notable fact is that the original version does not spell out the word “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” As we have mentioned, this was added by Aretha together with her sisters and Jerry Wexler. However, after Aretha’s version became popular, Otis Redding began spelling out the title when he performed the song.
Listening to Otis Redding’s own take on Respect, we say — wait a minute! The entire point of the original song has been reversed in the cover. The original Redding version is about an ungrateful woman and her shabby treatment towards her hard-working man.
“Do me wrong honey, if you wanna
You can do me wrong, honey while I’m gone
But all I’m askin’ is for a little respect when I come home….
Hey little girl, you’re sweeter than honey
And I’m about to give you all my money
But all I’m askin’, hey
Is a little respect when I get home”
So, OMG – Aretha Franklin’s song about a no-good man who mistreats his woman and which is arguably the national anthem of the feminist movement, initially had exactly the opposite message – it’s about a hard-hearted woman who doesn’t respect her deserving man!
In 1967 everything finally came together for Otis Redding. The release of Aretha Franklin’s cover of Respect was followed by his triumphant performance at Monterey Pop. Otis could now legitimately be called the “King of Soul.” Later in the year he began touring the Midwest along with his backup group The Bar-Kays. In early December he played some concerts and appeared on a TV show in Cleveland. The group then boarded Redding’s Beechcraft H18 plane and headed for the University of Wisconsin. They never made it. Flying through heavy fog and rain, the plane crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, WI on Dec. 9, 1967. Miraculously, Ben Cauley of the Bar-Kays survived the crash, but all others including Redding were killed. Otis Redding died tragically at age 26, just months after his career really took off.
A few days before he died Redding had recorded Dock of the Bay, a song written by Booker T and the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper. Some have claimed that Otis whistled at the end of the song because he had forgotten the words to the final chorus.The song was controversial because it marked a dramatic departure from Redding’s usual harsh R&B style, and several at Stax Records were opposed to recording it on the grounds that it could distract from their trademark sound. They need not have worried – the song shot up to #1, the first posthumously released record to hit the top spot on the charts. However, the success of Dock of the Bay makes Otis Redding’s untimely death that much more tragic.
It is fascinating that Respect, a song so closely identify with feminism and the women’s movement, was actually written by Otis Redding to convey a completely contradictory sentiment. But no matter, both versions of Respect are really worthy of, well, our respect!