The story behind Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ shows us how to make projects our own

Aretha Franklin, the great American singer who became a defining voice of the 20th century and the acclaimed Queen of Soul, died at her home in Detroit on Thursday from pancreatic cancer, her publicist said. She was 76.

“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,” Franklin’s family said in a statement.

A preacher’s daughter, Franklin began her career as a teenager in the 1950s, and her inimitable voice allowed her to hop between gospel, R&B, classical and jazz genres with grace. She went on to win 18 Grammy Awards, sell more than 75 million records in her life, and become one of the best-selling selling artists of all time. But out of all the songs she recorded, “Respect,” her demand for dignity, became her signature song that is still played in living rooms and at political protests today. The story of how Franklin took a song originally written and released by Otis Redding and made it her own can be career inspiration for us all.

How Franklin made “Respect” her own

In Redding’s version, “Respect” is about a man pleading with a woman to give him respect in exchange for what he can provide for her. Redding sang: “Hey little girl, you’re sweeter than honey / And I’m about to give you all of my money / But all I want you to do / Is just give it, give it / Respect when I come home … ”

When Franklin recorded “Respect” on Valentine’s Day in 1967, she kept most of the original lyrics but transformed the meaning of the song with the addition of a bridge and the call-and-response of her sisters. Under Franklin’s version, “Respect” became more than a domestic dispute. It became an empowering feminist anthem for women to be treated equally at home and at work.

“Oooh, your kisses,” Franklin sang, “Sweeter than honey / And guess what? / So is my money.” In her most memorable addition, Franklin spelled out her demand for parity for emphasis in the bridge: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Find out what it means to me /R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Take care, TCB [take of business].”

When Franklin’s version hit the airwaves, it became a massive hit, spending two weeks as the No. 1 song in America in 1967. It became a rallying cry for women’s rights and the civil rights movement. Today, it has been referenced and sampled in dozens of feature films. We all want R-E-S-P-E-C-T. “I think that hook line is something we all relate to,” Franklin told the Detroit Free Press. “It’s something we all appreciate and expect.”

It ranks No. 4 on “Songs of the Century,” a 1999 project by the National Endowment for the Arts. “Respect” is now remembered for being Franklin’s more than Redding’s. Even Redding acknowledges this. When he played it himself at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, he said, “This next song is a song that a girl took away from me!”

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.