The Collaborative Origins Of Aretha Franklin’s Song ‘Respect’

Aretha Franklin Respect BELatina Latinx
Photo: BELatina.

In 1967, at a time when the demands of both the civil and women’s rights movements were striving to be heard, Aretha Franklin was still a little-known singer with a big voice also in search of change. 

Only 25-years-old at the time, Franklin had already been subject to the more punishing barriers of being a Black woman of that time. She’d become a mother by the time she was twelve, had two sons by the time she was twenty-five and was a victim of spousal abuse at the hands of her husband and manager, Ted White. 

Undoubtedly, these factors and the struggles of being a Black woman threatened her dreams and the voice she was fighting tooth and nail to have heard. Yet, in a twist of fate, a song originally created by two men rocketed her straight to the top of the Top 40 charts and sealed her part as an icon of the women’s movements.

A tune with vague origins

“Respect” is a song we often hear being sung first from the mouths of our mamas who are hell-bent on seeing us get off the couch and giving them a little “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in the form of meaningful help around the house. Funnily enough, the lyrics for the song, which often give us our first glimpse of strong women with no qualms about expressing their needs, evolved far beyond its origins. 

The initial bones for Franklin’s hit were brought to life in 1965 by rhythm and blues musician Otis Redding and his road manager Earl Sims (nicknamed Speedo Sims). When speaking about the collaborative process of creating “Respect,” it’s important to note that the truths are muddled. It’s still debated whether Sims brought the original ballad of “Respect” to Redding or whether the latter created the first lyrics for Sims to record for his band. All in all, it is said that at some point in the song’s recording process, Redding decided to commandeer the project because of his more potent vocal abilities and promised to credit Sims for his part in creating the piece. 

Either way, while Redding’s name appeared in the credits for the original album, Sim’s name was absent. Despite this, today, it’s acknowledged that the skeleton for the song made timeless by Franklin was born somewhere in their collaboration. Truthfully, it’s the chapter after this that made the song what it is today.

When the song becomes an anthem

Speaking to Elle Magazine in 2016, just two years before her death, Franklin recalled hearing Redding’s version for the first time on the radio and knowing at once that she could make the song better. 

“I had just moved out of my father’s home and had my own little apartment,” Franklin explained in her interview with the magazine. “I was cleaning the place, and I had a good radio station on. I loved it. I loved it! I felt I could do something different with it, and my sister Carolyn, who was an RCA recording artist, and I got together in the background.” 

Redding’s version of “Respect” is built with a strange bent of machismo which sees him address his partner as his “little girl” while also desperately giving her the green light to cheat on him when he’s away so long as she respects him in the times they are together. (Uhh indeed, a far cry from the very warranted demands for R-E-S-P-E-C-T of Franklin’s lyrics which came two years later!). 

In her own version, Franklin does more than flip the script. She takes one man’s desperation and turns it into her own show of self-regard. Similar to the unabashed displays of self-love we see in today’s artists that make us shout, “yaasss queen!” at our phone screens, Franklin’s line “What you want / Baby, I got it” is self-assured. 

Empowering and full of self-love, these lines are a reminder to women that we deserve to know that we can stand on our own. When it comes to love and relationships, we should not have to compromise on respect.

A legacy to last forever

The recently released biopic about Franklin’s early life (aptly titled “Respect” and starring Jennifer Hudson as Franklin) recounts other aspects of the collaborative process that gave us the iconic song we have today. 

One particular scene in the new film shows how, unlike Redding’s version, Franklin’s song cleverly and famously spells out the song’s title. Whether the depiction in the movie is accurate or not, the idea is that Franklin and her sister Carolyn came up with the idea while singing together at a piano. 

The inspiration behind the notorious line “sock it to me” is also shown to have been inspired by the girls in their circle at the time. Speaking to Terry Gross of NPR, Franklin recalled how the phrase was a sort of neighborhood colloquialism. “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 cliché line.”

With such powerful lyrics and influence, it only makes sense that Franklin’s version of “Respect” inspired its own covers from other artists as well. In 1968, Diana Ross and the Temptations paired up to produce a version of the song for their collaborative album. Singers Stevie Wonder, Reba McEntire, Kelly Clarkson, and Elton John have all recorded their own versions. And of course, there’s the version recorded by Jennifer Hudson for the biopic based on Franklin’s life which came out on August 13th. 

Still, there’s no denying that Franklin’s cover from 1967 stands out on its own in a way that has made its first impressions on us indelible. Franklin’s soulful version of the song puts its listeners on a higher ground, closer to a religious experience than any other version ever could. Moreover, its message about a basic right is timeless, particularly for women of color: not only do we all deserve to demand respect, but by God, we deserve to receive our propers.