Aretha Franklin’s signature song was a groundbreaking female empowerment anthem of the late 1960s.
Originally a minor hit by Otis Redding in 1965, Aretha’s “Respect” was given a new arrangement and new lyrics about a woman boldly demanding the respect of her man. The song hit #1 on Billboard’s pop chart for two weeks in the summer of 1967, causing Rolling Stone to remark, “Aretha Franklin has shot out of nowhere and become Lady Soul.”
Otis Redding’s original had a significantly different storyline: it’s sung from the perspective of a hard-working man demanding “respect” (a euphemism for sex) from his woman. Engineer Tom Dowd—who worked on both Redding’s version and Aretha’s—suggested covering the song, and created a new arrangement. Aretha and her sisters rewrote the lyrics, including the song’s memorable breakdown:
Find out what it means to me
Take care, TCB
Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me
“Respect” appeared on Aretha’s 11th album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, her first for Atlantic Records. Its lyrics popularized several phrases, including “taking care of business” and “propers” (which later became “props,” one of the defining slang terms of the hip-hop era). “Sock it to me” became a major meme in the late ’60s—Richard Nixon even used it to help get elected President in 1968.
“Respect” had the biggest impact, with overtones for the civil rights movement and gender equality. It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it’s hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.