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Before Aretha Franklin Made ‘Respect’ Her Own, It Was Otis Redding’s

The late great singer died tragically at 26, just as the Queen of Soul was turning his minor hit into a feminist anthem

Sometimes, an artist covers another artist’s song so powerfully that it no longer belongs to the original musician — for all intents and purposes, the cover erases the first version from history, like it never happened. You’ll still meet people who have no idea Bob Dylan wrote “All Along the Watchtower” — you mean the Jimi Hendrix song? Dolly Parton penned “I Will Always Love You,” but the world knows it as Whitney Houston’s.  

The same goes for Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” one of the biggest feminist anthems of the 1960s. And it still resonates. I have memories of going to plenty of weddings when I was young and hearing it blasting near the end of the night, every woman in the room getting on the dance floor and proudly belting out the lyrics — especially when Franklin proclaims, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me.” It’s perhaps the definitive song from the Queen of the Soul, and it’s central to the new Franklin biopic, which is named Respect quite intentionally. The song is the focus of a pivotal sequence in the film in which the then-struggling singer (played by Jennifer Hudson) tries to figure out the perfect musical arrangement to make it a hit. But the title also doubles as the biopic’s theme, an exploration of how this disrespected, abused woman finally found the courage to stand on her own two feet and demand that the world give her her due. “Respect” is synonymous with Aretha Franklin — even though she didn’t write it and wasn’t the first artist to release a version of the track. That was Otis Redding. And this story is about him.

In the history of rock ‘n’ roll, there’s the infamous 27 Club, a sad collection of prominent musicians who died at the age of 27: Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, on and on. Redding died even younger, at 26, a handful of Top 40 singles to his name before he perished in a plane crash in December 1967. In Redding’s obituary, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner opened simply with “The Crown Prince of Soul is dead.” It seemed like Redding was just getting started, earning acclaim for his rich, forceful singing style and his ability to move from delicate ballads to burning-down-the-house numbers, like his redo of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” There’s a story that Dylan was so impressed by Redding that, before releasing “Like a Rolling Stone” himself, he offered it to him. (In one version of this perhaps apocryphal tale, Redding declined, complaining, “There’s too many fucking words.”) Twenty-six is too young for anyone to pass. But Redding’s death was especially tragic.

He came from modest means, growing up in Macon, Georgia, his father a sharecropper and part-time preacher. Even as a boy, though, Redding had a beautiful voice, singing in the church choir. He’d been part of bands since his teens, trying his hand at writing his own material and hoping to avoid working some backbreaking menial job. “I used to be a well-driller,” he said in 1967. “I made $1.25 an hour, drilling wells in Macon. One day, I drove a friend of mine, Johnny Jenkins, up to do a recording session. They had 30 minutes left in the studio and I asked if I could do a song, ‘These Arms of Mine.’ They did it, and it sold about 800,000 copies. I’ve been going ever since. I wrote that song in 1960, when I wasn’t even thinking of the music business. I recorded it in November 1962. I tried the song out with a small recording company but it didn’t do anything. I knew it was saying something, though. I dug the words.” 

The success of “These Arms of Mine,” a ballad of loneliness directed at the woman the narrator wants back, led to Redding recording his first album, 1964’s A Pain in My Heart. Over the next few years, he made a series of records, including his classic discs Otis Blue and Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, which highlighted his growing confidence and increasingly supple singing. And he had hits such as “Mr. Pitiful,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” (He was also an ace interpreter, completely transforming the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” into a funky workout.) 

It was during this time that “Respect” first came to him. Initially, Redding had written the song as a ballad, which was his bread and butter. But one day in the studio, he was talking to drummer Al Jackson, moaning about his wife Zelma Atwood, whom he’d married in 1961 and ended up having three children with. Redding didn’t take too kindly to how she treated him when he got home from the road, which prompted Jackson to respond, ​​“What are you griping about? You’re on the road all the time. All you can look for is a little respect when you come home.”

The drummer’s remark energized Redding, who poured his feelings into what would become “Respect,” giving it a harder edge and different lyrics. It was now a complaint leveled at Zelma ripped directly from their relationship…

What you want, honey, you got it
And what you need, baby, you got it
All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when I come home
Hey now, hey hey hey, yeah now 

Do me wrong, honey, if you wanna
You can do me wrong, honey, while I’m gone
But all I’m askin’ is for a little respect when I come home
Ooh yeah now, hey hey hey, yeah now

It’s worth noting that Redding apparently was known for womanizing on tour, a fact his wife tried to overlook. Not that this stopped the singer from becoming jealous, accusing her of cheating while he was away. “I told him, don’t bring nothing home and respect me,” she later said. “I never, ever, runned around on him. Never thought of it.” (As for his infidelity, Zelma’s response was “I happened to think my husband was a very handsome man, and it didn’t come as a surprise to me that other women felt that way about him too.”) 

Knowing that backstory, it’s hard not to hear “Respect” as Redding’s indignant, hypocritical lament, one that lacked the self-awareness to acknowledge his own failings as a partner. And yet, “Respect” (which came in at just over two minutes) had a driving beat, catchy horns and, of course, that soulful, sweaty Otis Redding vocal style. The chest-thumping tune entered the charts in 1965, peaking at No. 35 on Billboard, at that point his second-highest-placing track behind “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” from earlier that year. The song was simultaneously strutting and anguished, full of bruised male pride. And it rocked plenty. 

Around that same time, Aretha Franklin was scuffling. Although she’d put out several albums on Columbia Records, they hadn’t quite broken through, failing to produce significant singles. Feeling stuck, she switched labels, signing to Atlantic, which is when (as Respect suggests) she moved away from doing decorative standards to focus on grittier material that spoke directly to her own experience. The result was the first of her classic albums, 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which contained the impassioned title track. The record also housed a reworked, reconsidered version of “Respect.” If the song had come to Redding when he was trying to make a personal statement, so too did Franklin approach the track like a manifesto.

“I had just moved out of my father’s home and had my own little apartment,” she told Elle in 2016 about first hearing Redding’s “Respect.” “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 on the background [vocals].”

At just under two-and-a-half minutes, her “Respect” is a catchier, livelier, more defiant song, riding a danceable groove and new lyrics that, unintentionally, felt like they could have been Zelma’s response to Redding’s whining.

What you want, baby, I got it
What you need, do you know I got it? 

All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when you come home
Just a little bit
Hey baby
Just a little bit
When you get home
Just a little bit
Mister
Just a little bit

I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone
Ain’t gon’ do you wrong ‘cause I don’t wanna

“As women, we do have it,” Franklin said in the Elle interview about her lyrical approach to “Respect.” “We have the power. We are very resourceful. Women absolutely deserve respect. I think women and children and older people are the three least-respected groups in our society.” 

It was significant that she first heard Redding’s “Respect” after leaving her father’s home — he’d been a domineering presence in her life since she was a girl, and although she’d married an abusive man in Ted White, she at least thought she’d finally found some hard-earned independence. In her “Respect,” she sounds like she’s bursting at the seams, tired of her voice not being heard. “We just did it by the seat of our trousers,” engineer Tom Dowd said of the recording of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which happened in only a week. “She’d sit down at the piano, play a song … we were doing Aretha in gospel/blues tradition, unlike the elegant production things she had been doing at Columbia.”

And plenty of listeners took notice: “Respect” was her first No. 1 hit, helping to propel her to superstardom. The song claimed the top spot on the Billboard charts for two weeks in July 1967… right when, nearly simultaneously, Redding was making inroads with the more mainstream (white) audience by playing at the celebrated Monterey Pop Festival. As writer Jonathan Gould explained in a 2017 New Yorker piece, Redding felt he was just coming into his own: “[O]n the strength of his triumphant tours of Britain, France and Scandinavia, his appearances at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and his domineering performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, Redding had pushed beyond the commercial constraints of the so-called ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ of ghetto theaters and Southern night clubs. He was determined to become the first African-American artist to connect with the burgeoning audience for album rock that had transformed the world of popular music since the arrival of the Beatles in America.”

Taking place over three days in June, Monterey Pop featured Redding performing, among other songs, his rendition of “Respect.” But even as he sensed his star ascending, he was aware that the upstart Aretha Franklin was in the midst of making his version obsolete. Before he played “Respect,” he told the crowd, “This next song is a song that a girl took away from me. A good friend of mine, this girl, she just took the song, but I’m still going to do it anyway.”

According to Redding biographer Mark Ribowsky, “[Redding] didn’t like it” that Franklin had turned his minor hit into a blockbuster. But Gould, in his book Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, argues that Redding certainly loved the financial windfall that her version brought to him. (However, An Unfinished Life also addresses the long-simmering controversy around the actual authorship of “Respect,” with Gould claiming that Redding’s friend Speedo Sims actually came up with the song’s title and verse — and that the singer’s promise to give him a share of the royalties never came to fruition, an oversight that angered Sims after Franklin’s version blew up.) 

Regardless, Redding had other things on his mind other than “Respect”: Gould points out that, around the same time, Redding was getting interested in obtaining his pilot’s license. The author quotes from a Soul magazine article, which mentions, “[Redding] is currently taking flying lessons and is expected to qualify for a pilot’s license by the end of the year. The singer has looked into the possibility of constructing a landing strip on his ranch home, but was dismayed to learn it would cost over $40,000.”

It’s believed that Redding wasn’t at the controls of the twin-engine private plane that crashed on December 10, 1967, killing him and six other passengers, many of them members of his backing band, with one man, his horn player Ben Cauley, surviving. He’d been in Cleveland to perform on a local variety show, Upbeat, and sang his hit “Try a Little Tenderness.” But he also performed “Respect” for the last time, and as was his custom once Franklin’s version caught fire, he incorporated part of her rewrite into his original, singing “R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me.” 

This wasn’t the first time a talented musician had died in a plane crash: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (aka the Big Bopper) lost their lives during a flight in 1959. If anything then, the Redding news hit fans and colleagues even harder because of what had transpired eight years earlier. “When we heard about it, we were between planes in Indianapolis. We were sitting on an icy runway trying to get off the ground,” musician and songwriter Steve Cropper, a close collaborator of Redding’s, said in 2007. “It was icy that morning, the whole of Middle America was iced in. And [songwriter] David Porter called home to tell his wife he had been delayed, and she said she just heard on the radio that Otis Redding had died. … Unbelievable. And on the plane, in Life magazine or Look, there was a whole article about Otis Redding. We didn’t know how to react, there we were on a plane. It’s something I’ll never get over.”

Redding’s funeral took place back in his hometown of Macon. Among his pallbearers were fellow soul singers Percy Sledge, Sam Moore and Solomon Burke. Music fans mourned, sending his first posthumous single, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” which Redding wrote with Cropper, to No. 1 for four weeks in March 1968. He’d recorded the song just three days before he died. It was meant to be part of a concerted new effort to focus more on being in the studio and cutting back on touring.

He continued to have hits for years after his passing, including the strutting “Hard to Handle,” which would be repurposed by the Southern roots-rock band the Black Crowes in the early 1990s, giving it a new chart life. As for Franklin, her ascension was just beginning, dominating radio with “Spanish Harlem,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Day Dreaming” and “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” Over the ensuing decades, she fell out of favor, battled alcoholism and then had a pretty spectacular comeback in the mid-1980s thanks to Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and its ubiquitous smash “Freeway of Love.” (She also enjoyed her only other No. 1 hit during this period, the George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting [For Me].”) 

She wasn’t much of a chart presence after that, although that hardly mattered: By then, she’d established her bona fides as one of the great pop divas — an admittedly problematic label that she nonetheless wore with regal bearing. When you see the older, real-life Aretha Franklin near the end of Respect on stage at the Kennedy Center to honor Carole King, who co-wrote one of her other indelible classics, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” it’s like royalty has entered the building. 

Franklin died in 2018 at the age of 76 from cancer. When she passed, the Redding family sent out a statement:

“Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, was the perfect complement to Otis Redding, the King of Soul. Label mates, friends and friendly competitors, each helped propel the other to new levels of artistic merit. Otis Redding released ‘Respect’ to modest success in 1965. He wrote and performed it as an intimate conversation between a domestic couple. When Aretha delivered her version, she helped make Otis’ words universal. She turned it from the desire of a man and elevated it to the battle cry of a people — of women, of people of color, of anyone crying out for basic human recognition. Otis famously joked ‘that girl STOLE my song!’ in immense admiration for her vision and delivery, and of the overwhelming worldwide success and lasting influence of Aretha’s cover. … Rest in Peace, Ms. Aretha.”

So many pop songs are about wanting or giving love. But “Respect,” both versions, are about needing something else. “It was 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,” Franklin once wrote. Redding and Franklin, in their own ways, were singing about standing up for themselves. For Redding, it was about his wife. For Franklin, well, when you listen to her “Respect,” it sounds like she’s taking on the whole world. That’s why, as great as his version is, it’s hers that everybody still listens to. She made the song big enough for everyone to stand inside and sing along with. She made it hers by letting it be all of ours. 

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