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How Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ became an anthem for civil rights and feminism

Originally written and performed by Otis Redding, "Respect" became a feminist and civil rights anthem by the "Queen of Soul." Here's how that happened. (Video: Sarah Hashemi, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

It was Valentine’s Day 1967 when Aretha Franklin sat down at a piano in the Atlantic Records studio in New York and recorded “Respect.”

The Queen of Soul, who died Thursday at 76 her home in Detroit, took the song written and first recorded by Otis Redding and made it her own, transforming it into what would become an anthem for the civil rights movement and for the women’s movement.

Aretha Franklin, the legendary ‘Queen of Soul’ and a symbol of black pride and women’s liberation, dies at 76

“Respect” became a soundtrack for the 1960s. Franklin, then just 24 years old, infused it with a soulful and revolutionary demand, a declaration of independence that was unapologetic, uncompromising and unflinching:

Find out what it means to me
Take care, TCB
Oh (sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me)
A little respect (sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me)
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 fools (just a little bit)
And I ain’t lyin’ (just a little bit)

The song was a demand for something that could no longer be denied. She had taken a man’s demand for respect from a woman when he got home from work and flipped it. The country had never heard anything like it.

“Aretha shattered the atmosphere, the aesthetic atmosphere,” Peter Guralnick, author of “Sweet Soul Music,” told The Washington Post in 1987, on the 20th anniversary of the song. “She set a new standard which, in some way, no one else could achieve.”

“Respect” will undoubtedly be played at a Nov. 14 Madison Square Garden tribute concert being organized by Sony executive Clive Davis.

When Franklin’s version of “Respect” was released in April 1967, it soared to No. 1 on the charts and stayed there for at least 12 weeks.

The country was in the throes of a revolution. The Vietnam War was raging, and protests against it were growing. By summer, racial unrest would grip dozens of American cities, including Detroit.

The country was a tinder box, as people of color demanded equality and justice that had been too long coming.

In Detroit, ‘the rage of oppression.’ For five days in 1967, riots consumed a city.

“Respect” would become an anthem for the black-power movement, as symbolic and powerful as Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Redding, a songwriter and star who performed crossover hits, had recorded “Respect” in 1965.

“I had heard his version,” Franklin told The Post in 1987. “And I liked his version. Of course, I felt I could bring something new to it.”

Franklin and her sisters Carolyn Ann Franklin and Erma Franklin, who sang background vocals, came up with the idea to add the line “sock it to me, sock it to me.”

Tom Dowd, the legendary recording engineer, told Rolling Stone when Carolyn began singing “sock it to me,” “I fell off my chair when I heard that!”

It was Aretha’s idea to spell out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Before arriving at the studio, Franklin and her sisters had worked out the groove and the tracks.

“My sister Carolyn and I got together and — I was living in a small apartment on the west side of Detroit, piano by the window, watching the cars go by — and we came up with that infamous line, the ‘sock it to me’ line,” she told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 1999. “Some of the girls were saying that to the fellas, like ‘sock it to me’ in this way or ‘sock it to me’ in that way. It’s not sexual. It was nonsexual, just a cliche line.”

The song immediately crossed over, obliterating color lines.

“In black neighborhoods and white universities, her hits came like cannon balls, blowing holes in the stylized bouffant and chiffon Motown sound, a strong new voice with a range that hit the heavens and a center of gravity that was very close to earth,” wrote Gerri Hirshey, author of “Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music.”

When Franklin recorded the song, she was not trying to make it into a political anthem, David Ritz, author of the biography “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,” said in an interview with The Post. If anything, the song was personal.

“She deconstructed and reconstructed the song,” Ritz said. “She gave it another groove the original song did not have. She added background parts. Before she sang the lead part, she turned the beat around and rewrote all these background vocals.”

In the same way an engineer might take an engine apart and put it back together, Ritz said, Franklin took apart the song and put it back together.

“It still works, but it has a lot more power. … It is a major overhaul and one of the major overhauls that never undercuts the original version,” Ritz said. “It took on a universality the original never had. I think it is a credit to her genius she was able to do so much with it. She should have been listed as a co-producer of the song.”

Franklin’s reinvention of “Respect” is marked by an urgency the original version did not have.

“The original version by Otis Redding is a great song,” Ritz said. “He sings the hell out of it, but Aretha, in her reinvention, personalizes it: ‘You are going to give me respect when you come home.’ It becomes a woman thing. But her version is so deep and so filled with angst, determination, tenacity and all these contradictory emotions. That is how it became anthemic.”

Aretha Franklin lights up Constitution Hall

The song caught on with the black-power movement and feminists and human rights activists across the world. Its appeal remains powerful. In the last year, it has become a symbol of the #MeToo movement.

Aretha Louise Franklin grew up in Detroit, where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, preached black-liberation theology and led a thriving flock at New Bethel Baptist Church. That was where a young Aretha learned to sing spirituals and gospel.

“His services were broadcast locally and in other urban markets around the country, and 60 of his sermons (including the legendary “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest”) were released in album form,” according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “One of the best-known religious orators of the day, Rev. Franklin was a friend and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and other key figures in the civil-rights movement.”

Two months before the 1963 March on Washington, C.L. Franklin led a freedom march in Detroit, walking with King.

“Daddy had been preaching black pride for decades,” his daughter told biographer Ritz, “and we as a people had rediscovered how beautiful black truly was and were echoing, ‘Say it loud, I’m black, and I’m proud.’ ”

During a 2009 interview with The Post, Aretha Franklin recalled memories of her childhood home in Detroit, which was often visited by celebrities and civil rights leaders, including King, James Cleveland and Clara Ward.

Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, she said, “was a family friend. She and my dad were very good friends.” Franklin told The Post it was her father who brought gospel singer Cooke to Detroit.

Whenever King visited Detroit, he stayed at the house of Franklin’s father.

“Well I don’t think anyone knew how significant he would be in history, but everyone knew what he was trying to do and certainly trying to gain equal rights for African Americans and minorities,” Franklin told Ebony Magazine in 2013. 

Franklin was just a teenager when she began touring with King across the country as he preached nonviolence in the movement for civil rights.

“I asked my dad if it would be okay if I went” on the tour with King. “He said if that’s what I wanted to do, he thought it would be okay, so I went out for a number of dates with Dr. King. Harry Belafonte came out and of course, Andrew Young was there and Jesse [Jackson] came in and out.”

After King’s assassination in 1968, Franklin performed at his funeral.

Aretha Franklin was just 18 when she signed a major deal with Columbia Records in 1960. Six years later, after her Columbia Records contract expired, she signed with Atlantic Records, releasing a string of hits.

But Franklin’s greatest song was “Respect,” according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where she was the first woman to be inducted, in 1987.

In 1967, Franklin won two Grammys for “Respect”— one for Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance and the other with producer Jerry Wexler for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording.

Wexler recounted its significance in Rolling Stone magazine in 2004.

“It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity,” Wexler wrote. “There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it’s hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.”

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