How Aretha Franklin's "Respect" Became an Undying Anthem

"It was the right song at the right time," the singer says of her 1967 hit

By Zach Johnson Aug 16, 2018 4:00 PMTags

Now, more than ever, Aretha Franklin deserves some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

The legendary singer, known as the Queen of Soul, died Thursday at her home in Detroit, surrounded by family and loved ones. Franklin had been battling advanced pancreatic cancer. "In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins knew no bounds. We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on," the 76-year-old musician's longtime publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn, told E! News in a statement. "As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time."

As fans mourn Franklin's passing, her signature song—1967's "Respect"—is already re-entering the charts. Franklin's version, originally recorded by Otis Redding in 1965, was produced by Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler. As she recalled in a 1999 Fresh Air interview with NPR's Terry Gross, she "just loved" the original. "I decided that I wanted to record it. And my sister Carolyn and I got together. 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. It was a cliché of the day. Actually, we didn't just come up with it, it really was cliché. And some of the girls were saying that to the fellows, like, 'Sock it to me in this way or sock it to me in that way.' Nothing sexual, and it's not sexual," she said. "It was non-sexual, just a cliché line."

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"I have been in many studios in my life, but there was never a day like that. It was like a festival," Mardin recalled to Rolling Stone in 2012. "Everything worked just right." In a 2004 interview with the magazine, Wexler explained the song "was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. 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."

After "Respect" was released to radio in April 1967, her cover soared to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for months, later becoming an anthem for the black power movement.

"In later times, it was picked up as a battle cry by the civil rights movement. But when I recorded it, it was pretty much a male-female kind of thing," Franklin, who was 25 when the song came out, told Fresh Air. "And more in a general sense, from person-to-person, 'I'm going to give you respect and I'd like to have that respect back or I expect respect to be given back.'" Franklin a she was stunned when the song hit No. 1. "It was the right song at the right time."

In 1967, "Respect" won two Grammy Awards: Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance (Franklin) Best Rhythm & Blues Recording (Wexler); in total, Franklin has 18 Grammy wins. Thirty-one years later, "Respect" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and in 2002, the Library of Congress honored Franklin's rendition, adding it to the National Recording Registry.

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"People responded to 'Respect' as if the radio weren't built for a sound so powerful, as if the music was coming straight out of the air from some all-global transmitter in the Arctic," music critic Greil Marcus told ELLE in 2016, in honor of the song's 50th anniversary. "'Respect' was a thrilling ride, and what made the music so big, so undeniable, was that it opened the door to the moral bigness of what Aretha Franklin had to tell the world, to a new definition of what 'soul' meant: that it could be all-consuming, moving the listener as deeply as it did the singer."

"Respect" has been covered many times—by Kelly Clarkson, Diana Ross and The Supremes (with The Temptations) and Joss Stone—many of whom used Franklin's version as inspiration. Franklin's "Respect" often appeared in popular films and television series, such as Akeelah and the Bee, Blues Brothers 2000, Bridget Jones's Diary, Everybody Hates Chris, Forrest Gump, Murphy Brown, Mystic Pizza, Scandal, Sex and the City, St. Elmo's Fire and The Wonder Years.

Having "Respect" adopted by civil rights and feminist movements was a source of pride for Franklin, who was born and raised in Michigan. "Just to know I uplifted another person—I wouldn't be doing anything else," the Queen of Soul told ELLE. "In terms of helping people understand and know each other a little better, music is universal—universal and transporting."