24-year old Aretha Franklin walked into Atlantic Recording Studios on February 14, 1967. In her pocket, she held a new arrangement of Otis Redding’s 1965 hit “Respect”. 50 years later, Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Respect” is not only her signature song, but the song of a movement and generation. Let me take you back…
After a rocky session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Aretha Franklin & team reconvened in New York City in February 1967. Their mission: Continue work on Aretha’s Atlantic Records debut LP, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You). The material in these recording sessions was a mix of covers, a few originals, and of course, originals written by Aretha. Among the roster of songs to be recorded was a cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect”. Little did anyone know, that song would soon become the song that defined an era, and a career.
Prior to signing with Atlantic Records in 1966, Aretha Franklin was far from the superstar she wanted to be. Her 10+ albums at Columbia Records failed to spark the fire. Therefore, at the end of her contract, Aretha moved on. Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler was waiting for the call that Aretha was free. Wexler had his eye on Aretha since hearing the soul-shaking gospel recordings she did when she was 14 years old. When Philadelphia radio dj Louise Bishop, called Wexler in the fall of 1966, all she had to say was “Aretha’s ready for you. (Ritz, 147)” Wexler was off to the races. Shortly thereafter, Aretha Franklin signed with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records.
After a bumpy recording session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in January 1967, the team reconvened in New York City in February to continue work on Aretha’s Atlantic Records debut. Jerry Wexler ran the show along with Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd on the production side. Jerry also brought in the studio players from Muscle Shoals as well as the inimitable King Curtis for assistance with the horns. Despite all these other hands in the pot, Aretha ran the show.
Jerry Wexler was a smart man. He knew that Aretha needed to be more involved to make the music good and give it authentic feeling. That’s what was missing in many instances at Columbia Records: Aretha’s creative input. At Atlantic, Aretha played piano on many of her sessions, helped arrange not only the vocals on the records, but also the instrumentation. Combined with her playing piano, Aretha’s creative input turned out to be the missing ingredient in Aretha’s pot of soul music.
The team recording Aretha’s Atlantic Records debut was a unique mix of musicians, producers, and engineers. At the reigns was Jerry Wexler, producer and Atlantic Records executive who signed Aretha to her Atlantic contract. Along with him was engineer Arif Mardin, and arranger/engineer Tom Dowd. These 3 men headed up the production/engineering for the majority of Aretha’s legendary sessions at Atlantic Records.
The band was primarily made up of musicians from the session at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. These musicians provided the backbone for Aretha’s trailblazing soul sound. The legendary King Curtis also joined the Muscle Shoals musicians in New York City . Helping with the backgrounds were Aretha’s sisters Carolyn & Erma Franklin, along with the Sweet Inspiration herself, Ms. Cissy Houston.
February 14, 1967 was not Aretha’s first performance of “Respect”. She added the song to her live set list more than a year prior to signing with Atlantic Records, and was working on the arrangement with her sisters. Unfortunately, there are no recordings to provide further insight into what arrangement Aretha used. It be ventured though, that Aretha’s early live version feel somewhere between Otis’s original and her final update. What we do know though, is when she walked into Atlantic Recording Studios on February 14, 1967, the arrangement on the record was already completely worked out.
When considering the changes from Otis’s version of “Respect” to Aretha’s, the first thing that stands out is the spelling out of word in Aretha’s version. “I fell out of my chair when I heard that (Bego, 88)” Tom Dowd told Marc Bego when he heard Aretha first spell out “respect” in the song in Bego’s book The Queen of Soul.
There are a few other immediate things that can be noticed when comparing the two versions. First, the groove is different. As Jerry Wexler explained it to David Ritz in Respect: The Life Of Aretha Franklin: “her groove is more dramatic. That stop-and-stutter syncopation was something she invented. (Ritz, 161)”
In Otis’s version the song simply plays out, without a bridge. Otis’s version contains no bridge. For Aretha, Wexler and team utilized the chord changes of Sam and Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby“. Then, King Curtis laid down that unforgettable tenor saxophone solo to bridge into the final stanzas before she spelled out exactly what she wanted.
The “sock-it-to-me’s” were the product of Carolyn Franklin. The phrase was something Carolyn heard “on the streets and thought it might work in a call-and-response call with ‘Respect’… we had to rearrange the perspective (of the song from a man’s to a woman’s). (Ritz, 162)” The line gained so much fame as a result of “Respect” that there’s even a clip of President Richard Nixon saying it.
One of the most confused pieces of the song is what Aretha says after she spells ‘respect’. “Take care of, T-C-B.” “T-C-B”, often mis-heard as “T-C-P” refers to the phrase “taking care of business.” The phrase was commonly used in the black community in the 60’s. Aretha also referenced it on another cut from I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), her own composition “Dr. Feelgood”. Later on, even Elvis Presley would adopt the acronym.
The final notable addition Aretha made is the line “I get tired, keep on trying, runnin’ out of fools, and I ain’t lying”. This is a reference to her biggest R&B hit on Columbia Records, “Runnin’ Out Of Fools“. As David Ritz points out, “she honored the soul-music tradition of self-referencing previous successes”. This is a tradition that continues into R&B today, just look to Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, and Mariah Carey.
Part of what makes an Aretha song an Aretha song is, of course, the unmistakable vocal. Aretha’s voice commands attention, which is part of what makes “Respect” such an anthem. She doesn’t simply ask for respect, she commands, demands, and receives.
Amazingly though, the song’s recording took place when Aretha’s golden voice wasn’t as golden as it could be. “She had a cold”, Aretha’s son Teddy revealed in 2007. Most notably, listen to her vocal delivery on the “need” of the second line “what you need”. The note is a bit broken, and displays some strain. If being sick for the recording of a signature song doesn’t cement Aretha’s legacy as a legend, what does?
Upon it’s release on April 29, 1967, “Respect” got exactly what it asked for. Aretha’s second single on Atlantic Records received critical acclaim, and shot to number one on both the R&B and pop charts. Aretha had finally made it. Shortly thereafter, “Respect” won Aretha her very first Grammy Award. Rolling Stone Magazine placed “Respect” at #5 on it’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.
As if those accolades aren’t enough, Aretha’s version of “Respect” is often regarded as an anthem for the Civil Rights movement, gender equality, and down right person-to-person human dignity. Aretha went from fighting for a hit to fighting them off, seemingly overnight, thanks to a simple word: “respect”.
And what did Otis Redding think about all of this? “The girl has taken that song from me (Ritz, 161).” Otis Redding told Jerry Wexler. The popular of Aretha’s version grew so high that even Otis adapted it on a few occasions during live performances.
To this day, there is not an Aretha Franklin concert that goes by without “Respect”, usually as the encore. And every night, Aretha sings it, but the audience sings right along, word for word. Aretha has performed the song so, so, so many times that it’s impossible to highlight all of them (although that should be a good start) It’s even more impossible though, to list all the instances it has been used, in film, tv, and even by other others looking to pay their own respect to Aretha. This performance in Amsterdam in 1968 though, ranks among the best:
And what does Aretha have to say about the song? “”Respect” was-and is-an ongoing blessing in my life (Franklin, 112).”
Listen to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” & I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You):
Ritz, David. Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. 2014
Dobin, Matt. I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and The Making Of A Soul Music Masterpiece. 2003
Bego, Mark. The Queen of Soul. 2001.
Franklin, Aretha & Ritz, David. Aretha: From These Roots. 1999.