How Aretha Franklin Made "Respect" Her Own

Aretha Franklin in 1968
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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There is no question about it: Aretha Franklin's version of "Respect" is one of the single most important recordings of all time.

This isn't inflammatory: there's more than five decades of history to back this claim up. A fascinating hybrid of soul, pop and gospel and a striking (if not fully intended) anthem of civil and gender rights during a particularly volatile time in American history, "Respect" established Aretha Franklin as the Queen of Soul - and all her work afterward reinforced the coronation.

But in case there's any doubt it must be known: Aretha's version is exactly that. Otis Redding's original version, a nominal Top 40 hit in 1965, was not simply thrust upon the singer, newly signed to Atlantic Records after a bold but unsuccessful tenure on Columbia. And she didn't simply sing it as sung.

READ MORE: The Album That Changed Aretha Franklin's Career

Her "Respect" wasn't just gender-flipped. The arrangement? It was hers. She's playing piano on the track, alongside the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (flown in to New York after a brief, abortive session in their native Alabama). The background vocals, featuring her sisters Carolyn and Erma, were put together at her discretion. And the song's signature lines - "R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me" - that was hers as well.

"Respect" became Aretha's first song to top the Billboard Hot 100, doing so in the summer of 1967. (Otis playfully introduced the song into his set at the Monterey Pop Festival a week after it peaked as one from "a friend of mine...this girl, she just took this song.") And while she did embrace the song in the session as a personal anthem more than anything else, she was well aware of how it impacted others in the fights for freedom.

READ MORE: A Natural Woman: Our Powerful Aretha Franklin Memories

"It [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect," she wrote in her 1999 memoirs. "It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance."

All these years later, it's lost none of that power. Find out what it means to you.

The Genius of Aretha Franklin is now available on CD from Rhino Records. SoulMusic.com readers can get 20% off at Rhino.com with the promo code "ARETHA20."

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