On 28 June 1990, Aretha Franklin performed to a 50 000-strong crowd in Detroit, but only after Nelson Mandela spoke, because that is who they came to listen to. He was touring the US to show his appreciation for support during his 27 years of incarceration. “When we were in prison, we appreciated and avidly listened to the sound of Detroit, Motortown,” he told the cheering throng.
Thirteen years later, on the night of 5 December 2013, ABC News interviewed Franklin after Mandela died earlier that day. The anchor asked her: “If you were to perform a tribute song to song him, what would it be?” “Respect ,” she answered without hesitation. “No question about it.”
Franklin, who died on 15 August 2018, was the first woman to have 100 hits on the Billboard R&B chart – the last was her version of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep in 2014. That was 54 years after her first, Today I Sing the Blues .
Franklin learned to use her voice in church (her first recording was a gospel song at age 14) – powerful and subtle, playful and passionate, proud and challenging. Her finest period, though, was between 1967 and 1972, which earned her the moniker “Queen of Soul”. She released eight studio and three live albums in those five years, the first being I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You . Respect was the opening track.
The song was first recorded in 1965 by its composer, soul great and musical genius Otis Redding. But it wasn’t his finest moment. From a man’s perspective, it was about a relationship falling apart, with him whining “for a little respect when I come home”.
Franklin had heard Redding’s version on the radio and had been performing it live for some time before she recorded her version with the Muscle Shoals musicians – a group of brilliant session musicians renowned for the soul they brought to any song – and revered producer Jerry Wexler in New York on Valentine’s Day 1967.
She had worked out with her sisters and backing vocalists, Erma and Carolyn, how to flip the song’s gendered view. But that wasn’t the only modification that made Respect bigger, more brilliant, more important. The song’s major twist came at 1’48” where Aretha spelled it out: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. Not a request, but a demand.
Described as one of the most famous spelling lessons in music, she made Respect not only a feminist statement, but also an anthem for people of colour delivered by a strong black woman.
A mere 2’29” long, it was still the perfect pop tune – energetic, infectious and suggestive. It filled dance floors. But it was also the perfect song for the political moment in a turbulent US. The Vietnam War was escalating. There was racial unrest in many cities. The civil rights movement was under pressure from the US government, and women were demanding rights and recognition.
Respect didn’t need slogans or pronouncements to make it one of the best and most enduring political songs. It had a universality that made it possible for any listener to make it their own. Respect was something everyone needed.
As Franklin wrote in her autobiography: “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.”