On returning home from a tour in 1965, the singer Otis Redding had a heart-to-heart with his friend Al Jackson Jr, drummer in Booker T and the MG’s. Redding complained that, after such a long absence, he wasn’t getting the appreciation he felt was due from his wife. Jackson wasn’t sympathetic. “What are you griping about?” he said. “You’re on the road all the time. All you can look for is a little respect when you come home.”
Redding was working on a song at the time. It was intended for his road manager Speedo Sims and his band The Singing Demons, but Jackson’s words inspired him to up the tempo and keep it for himself. Characterised by plaintive vocals and staccato bursts of horn, “Respect” was a desperate plea that reinforced the archetype of the hard-working man providing for his wife and seeking gratitude, and hopefully sex, in return. The songwas a minor hit, and was among the tracks on Redding's successful Otis Blue album.
Two years later, on Valentine’s Day, a gospel singer from Detroit named Aretha Franklin entered a studio in New York and, alongside producer Jerry Wexler, the studio crew from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and her sisters Erma and Carolyn, transformed both the song and its meaning. Franklin’s versionadded a bridge in which she literally spelt out what she saw as the song’s central message — “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me”.
The effect was to turn Redding’s call for spousal submission into a cri de coeur for women tired of being disrespected by men. Unlike in Redding’s version, there’s no cajoling or complaining; instead Franklin demands what is rightfully hers, in the process offering solidarity to her sisters and delivering a fiery reminder that respect is a two-way street. On hearing her interpretation, Redding conceded that “Respect” was no longer his. Performing it that year at the Monterey Pop Festival, he introduced it as “a song that a girl took away from me”.
It was Franklin’s template that Diana Ross & The Supremes with The Temptations followed for their cover on the 1968 television special TCB that saw two of Motown’s most popular acts perform hits and show tunes in front of a live audience. Here Ross went head-to-head with Eddie Kendricks; while he pleads for attention, she informs him that all will be well as long as he treats her right. A soundtrack LP followed and went to No 2 in the US Billboard album chart.
A song espousing respect for womankind might not have seemed the obvious choice for Ike & Tina Turner, given the former’s reputation for infidelity and violence, but in the late 1960s the couple regularly performed “Respect”, and included it on their live album, In Person. In 1970, midway through their nine-minute cover of the song at the Newport Jazz Festival, Tina delivered an impassioned speech where she spoke directly of her husband’s philandering. “[Women] hardly ever get what we want,” she told the crowd. “But you know who always get what they want? The men... And they do it with whoever they want to do it with.”
Other interpretations have, in comparison, fallen flat. The New Jersey singer Adevagave “Respect” a tepid house overhaul in 1989, grazing the UK top 20 in the process. Kelly Clarkson honked her way through it on American Idol in 2002 against a flimsy piano accompaniment (more robust backing was provided for the album American Idol: Greatest Moments), while Joss Stone sampled it on the hopelessly overcooked “Headturner” on 2007’s Introducing Joss Stone LP.
That none of these can hold a candle to Franklin’s “Respect” is perhaps inevitable, since who could hope to match her urgency and firepower? It’s the song that earned her two Grammys, her first number one hit and, in 1968, her face on the cover of Time magazine. It was her version that was embraced and adopted by the women’s rights movement, and ultimately earned her the title “Queen of Soul”. When Aretha sang “All I’m askin’ is for a little respect”, she got it by the truckload.
People can hear that song in many different ways but when a woman hears Aretha singing it they know exactly what she's talking about.
At the Grammys in 1998, the legendary soul singer stepped in – at the last minute – for Pavarotti, who had been due to sing his trademark piece, Nessun Dorma. So obviously she went ahead and performed that aria.
I saw it. It was unforgettable.
Here she is performing the piece a few years later, at an event in Philadelphia in 2015. Just **listen** to how she ad libs on that top B.