This is the 45th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Upon returning home from a tour, Otis Redding felt his wife wasn’t treating him the way she should have been. He complained to M.G.s drummer Al Jackson, who was not sympathetic.
“What are you griping about?” Jackson said. “You’re on the road all the time. All you can look for is a little respect when you come home.”
That last sentence ended up being worked into what would be one of Redding’s best known songs, “Respect.” Redding had initially written the song as a ballad for his tour manager, Speedo Sims, for Sims to record with his band, The Singing Demons, but Redding was inspired to alter the lyrics and tempo because of his conversation with Jackson.
But Sims never released a version of the song. Percy Welch, a musician present for the recording, said Sims was unable to record a usable version:
Every time Speedo would get in the studio, his voice would crack up. We’d done recorded ‘Respect’ five or six times, and each time, it’d get worse and worse… [Otis told Speedo,] ‘You don’t need to do that tune. I need to do it. You let me cut it, I’ll give you credit.’ Speedo should have made him sign a contract.”
But Redding did not give credit to Sims, and thus Sims didn’t get to be a part of the song’s success, at least in terms of recognition (or money).
Redding included the song on his third studio album, “Otis Blue,” released in 1965. The single reached the top five on Billboard’s Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart, and helped Redding cross over into a white fanbase.
In Redding’s “Respect,” he sang from the perspective of a man pleading with his partner, presumably a wife or girlfriend:
Do me wrong, honey, if you wanna to
You can do me wrong honey, while I’m gone
But all I’m asking
Is for a little respect when I come home, ooh, yeah now
Hey hey hey, yeah now
Hey little girl, you’re so sweet, little honey
And I’m about to, just give you all of my money
And all I’m asking, hey
A little respect when I come home, hey hey
Hey hey hey, yeah now
The subtext, as many have read into it, is that “respect” is a euphemism for sex. In this relationship, the man sees sex as his just reward in exchange for allowing the woman to spend his money. This aspect was changed in a subsequent cover, but we’ll get to that.
Between 1965 and 1967, a handful of artists covered “Respect.” Some were more faithful to the original than others, though none strayed too terribly far from the source material. There was English mod rock band St. Louis Union’s version…
…and a live version by Johnny Rivers, of “Secret Agent Man” fame…
…and Australian rock band Ray Brown & the Whispers’ version…
…and The Rationals’ garage-y version without horns…
…and this version by a Greek band called The Charms…
…and a few others. They weren’t all carbon copies of Redding’s version, of course, but they all used that same arrangement, and with the exception of The Rationals’ version, they all had horns. All these versions were variations on what Redding had done. His was still the standard-bearer.
But then there was Aretha Franklin’s version.
When Franklin recorded “Respect” in 1967, she didn’t just change the gender of the song’s narrator; she altered the lyrics and the arrangement, thus changing the meaning and dynamics of the song. The assured, confident narrator in Franklin’s version stood in contrast to the beaten-down, exasperated character in Redding’s original. Redding sang of respect not just as a euphemism, but as something that was bartered in a tit-for-tat exchange. Franklin sang of respect as something that was earned, not traded.
In his autobiography, “Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music,” Frankin’s producer, Jerry Wexler, wrote of the difference of the meaning of “respect” in the two versions:
For Otis, respect had the traditional connotation, the more abstract meaning of esteem… The fervor in Aretha’s voice demanded that respect; and more respect also involved sexual attention of the highest order. What else would ‘Sock it to me’ mean?
That “sock it to me” refrain, sung by Franklin’s sisters Erma and Carolyn, was conceived in the studio by Carolyn and Aretha. That, along with spelling “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” was one of the more overt additions to the song.
Franklin’s cover of “Respect” not only reached Number 1 on not just the R&B Singles Chart, but on the Billboard Hot 100 as well. It was Franklin’s first Number 1 single, establishing her credentials as a soul heavyweight and introducing her to a wider audience.
Franklin, her sisters, and producer Jerry Wexler opened the door for future versions to alter the song even more. Some of the subsequent versions were modeled after hers, others after Redding’s. And then there were versions that were something else entirely.
One of the first versions of “Respect” to be released after Frankin’s version was by American soul band, The Vagrants. For the most part, it was a messier, grittier, and louder take on Redding’s version, but it did include a nod to Franklin’s cover with a singular “Sock it to me.”
Stevie Wonder’s cover of “Respect,” which appeared on 1967’s “I Was Made to Love Her,” felt like a descendant of Franklin’s version, rather than Redding’s version. But Wonder found a way to make it his own; not only did he put his own phrasing on the verses, but by playing down the horns from the previous versions, he was able to bring the funky drums to the forefront.
Instrumental rock band The Ventures recorded one of the first covers of “Respect” to be done in the style of Franklin’s version. The Ventures’ “Respect,” which appeared on “$1,000,000 Weekend,” used keyboards where Franklin had used horns. It was more of a laid back jam version than the authoritative statement that Franklin had delivered.
In 1968, Diana Ross & the Supremes teamed up with The Temptations for “TCB,” an NBC television special where the two groups performed a variety of show tunes and Motown hits. The show was later released as an album. As a supergroup of sorts, The Supremes and The Temptations performed “Respect,” drawing upon both the Redding and Franklin versions.
Soul singer Jerry Butler, who had been the lead singer of the Impressions, released a version of “Respect” on his album, “The Soul Goes On.” The intro horn section mirrored the horns from Redding’s version, but if you listen close enough, you can hear the backup singers say, “Just a little bit.”
Ike and Tina Turner’s “Respect” was a freewheeling cover that combined elements of both Redding’s version (the horns) and Franklin’s (the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” breakdown). Things then got weird when Tina began talking about kitchen grease and imploring the audience to clap. But you’d clap, of course, because you can’t not do what Tina says.
Rotary Connection — which had served as Muddy Waters’ backup band on his “Electric Mud” album — recorded a slowed-down, funky version for its 1969 covers album, “Songs.” With altered lyrics and an unrecognizable backing track, Rotary Connection’s “Respect” was so different from the source material that it felt more like a spin-off than a cover.
English post-punk band The Wolfgang Press released a version of “Respect” on its 1984 single, “Scarecrow.” Guest vocalist (and 4AD label mate) Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins served as the soft foil to Michael Allen’s brash and unpolished vocals. Allen’s affected style — which sounded like Homer Simpson screaming while running out of a burning house — was about as far from Franklin’s vocals as one could get. But, given the band’s post-punk, industrial-flavored sound, it was a style that worked.
R&B singer Adeva recast “Respect” as a dance song for her 1989 debut album. Drawing on Gospel music as much as it drew on disco and house, Adeva’s “Respect” had more soul and spirit than most dance music released at the same time. It peaked at Number 17 in the UK, but it failed to chart in the US.
Guitarist Jennifer Batten covered “Respect” for her 1992 debut album, “Above Below and Beyond.” Batten, who performed with Michael Jackson on three of his world tours, performed the song as a hard rock anthem, peppering guitar solos throughout the song.
In 2002, the same year Kelly Clarkson won the first season of “American Idol,” an album of highlights from the show featured her modernized version of “Respect.” Clarkson channeled Franklin’s version, omitting anything resembling Redding’s “Respect.” But as faithful to Franklin’s rendition as Clarkson’s cover might have been, it was not a phoned-in karaoke tribute. Like everything Clarkson sang that year, her cover of “Respect” had a fierce energy.
We’ve discussed before how changing the gender of the singer can change the dynamics of a song. It certainly played into our discussions of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off.” But gender doesn’t just “play a role” in how we discuss Franklin’s “Respect.” It defines and drives the discussion. We would be framing our review of the song in different terms if the “Sock it to me” chorus had been introduced by a male singer.
It’s also worth noting that the era in which it was released played a big part in the importance of Franklin’s “Respect.” In 2016, we have several examples of women unapologetically exuding sexuality in songs. We’ve seen it for years now. Madonna, Joan Jett, Janet Jackson, TLC, Salt-n-Pepa, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and Peaches have all sung of their sexuality. Hell, Azealia Banks sang pretty explicitly about cunnilingus on her 2012 song, “212.” And as naughty and raunchy as it was, it still felt kind of boring. Banks’ song was startling, but in an era of “Orange Is The New Black” and “The L Word,” it certainly didn’t sound groundbreaking. But 45 years earlier, when Franklin and her backup singers sang “sock it to me” in 1967, that was a big deal for the time.
When Rolling Stone compiled its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Franklin’s version of “Respect” was listed at Number 5. That one of the leading publications in modern music history has it on its Top 10 speaks to its quality as a song and as a cover. It was the only cover in the Top 10. It’s also the only song in the Top 10 sung by a woman.
Does the fact that it was the highest-ranked cover on the list mean it’s the best cover ever? That might be reading too much into it, but we here at Pop Culture Experiment are willing to go on record that it is the greatest cover of all time, though we maintain that Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” are nothing to sneeze at, either.
What those three songs — and all great covers — have in common is that your enjoyment of the song does not depend on knowing it’s a cover. That, more than any criteria we’ve discussed before, might be the key ingredient of a solid cover song: that you could enjoy it, even if you thought it was an original. And Franklin’s version was indeed an original.