Cover Girls: “Respect”

aretha6Otis Redding was a hard-working road dog of a soul singer, constantly touring in hopes that he would finally break through to the pop audience. A superstar in the R&B world, with many hits on the rhythm & blues charts, by 1965 he was beginning to get tired of it all. Complaining to a band member about their latest grueling tour, Otis was surprised when the drummer replied, “What are you griping about? You’re on the road all the time. All you can look for is a little respect when you come home.” Mulling over these words, Otis crafted a song about a man demanding this respect when he got home and recorded it, complete with his usual driving beat and the Stax horn section. He put the song on his acclaimed albumĀ Otis Blue and later released it as a single, where it reached the top 40 on the elusive pop chart. It was one of his biggest pop hits to date.

Two years later, another struggling R&B singer was looking for songs to record for her new album. It would be her first album with Atlantic records, a company who wanted to make her a mega-star. Aretha Franklin was already familiar with “Respect”, since it had been a huge R&B hit, but she and producer Jerry Wexler felt they could add something of their own to the tune. Changing the song’s arrangement, they allowed room for Aretha’s impressive vocals. Most importantly, they added a bridge to the song, with Aretha belting, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me”. Aretha’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma, sang backup and added the “Sock it to me” chant. Aretha’s version also includes a lyric about getting her “propers” when she gets home, an early usage of the term that eventually evolved into “props”. With just a few changes and Aretha’s commanding performance, the song became an anthem for civil rights and the feminist movement. It shot to number one on the pop charts, becoming Aretha’s signature song and biggest hit. Even Otis Redding was impressed with her recording, and joked while introducing the song at one of his own shows that “a friend of mine, this girl she just took this song.” Aretha would go on to have many more hits over the next several decades. Otis Redding died in a plane crash while on tour in December 1967, the same year Aretha’s version of “Respect” was a hit. Shortly after his death, he had his only pop number one with “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”.

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