The other day my friend told me she had to evaluate an album for one of her classes and she had no idea which album to choose. The first album that popped into my mind was Aretha Franklin’s album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” I suggested she write about what Aretha Franklin represented as a black woman singing soul music in the 60s in the height of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. Specifically, the song “Respect” (1967) which empowered many people during this time to fight for their personal and political liberation.
I showed her the page in Call and Response that includes this song and said “see it’s in my book, so it must be important” and then I saw it. “Respect by Otis Redding as interpreted by Aretha Franklin”. You can imagine my reaction given my last post about the ownership of songs by repeating them. I do not know a single person who would tell you that this song is Otis Redding’s and yet every time it is played he is the one getting paid. While listening to his version on YouTube, the comments are filled with people who did not even know it was his song, they thought it was Aretha Franklin’s. This sparked my interest in the difference between the two versions of the song and the impact that these differences have on the meaning of the song.
Otis Redding’s original version of “Respect” is about a man coming home from work and wanting his wife to cut him some slack. She is probably nagging him and asking for attention because that is what women do right? The man in the song gives the woman (presumably his wife) permission to do what she wants when he is gone but wants her respect when he comes home. He says he will give her whatever she wants or needs including “all of [his] money.” The lyrics that say all of this imply that the man in the song is the breadwinner in the house and that his wife is financially dependent on him. His wife doesn’t seem to have much agency in the relationship either, and he calls out to her “hey little girl” putting her in an inferior position that suggests dependency.
I wouldn’t call Aretha Franklin’s version a cover of the original, as even in switching the perspective of the song to that of a woman she flops the roles and completely changes the meaning of the lyrics. She used Otis Redding’s lyrics to create a song that empowers women instead of diminishing their worth. Her lyrics are a direct response to Otis Redding’s call. When he says “Do me wrong, honey, if you wanna / You can do me wrong, honey, while I’m gone” she replies “I ain’t gonna do you wrong / While you’re gone / Ain’t gonna do you wrong / ‘Cause I don’t wanna.” I always liked these lyrics but reading them in conversation with the original illuminates Aretha Franklin’s genius in her rewrite of the original song. The man gives his wife permission to do him wrong and she says she isn’t going to because she doesn’t want to, acknowledging that she is has a choice which suggests to women that they have agency in their relationships with men. She also changes the lyrics so that she has the money which reclaims a woman’s ability to be financially independent of men. Where Otis Redding’s version ends, Aretha Franklin adds the famous “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” refrain. The end of this song is both catchy and empowering with phrases like “sock it to me” mixed in with demands for respect. The song ends with a powerful claim of independence when she says “you might walk in / And find out I’m gone.” By giving the woman control over her life and relationship, this song offers it’s listeners the words they need to demand respect in their lives.
While the basis of the song comes from Otis Redding’s lyrics, it is a completely different song and I think even though he owns the copyright to the lyrics, she should have been given co-production rights to her version since she altered it so much. In the music industry, the writers and producers get paid for the music performed, not the performers, and yet it is the singer’s voice that has an impact on listeners. Aretha Franklin’s producer, Jerry Wexler, claims in his autobiography that “the fervor in Aretha’s voice demanded that respect.” Otis Redding, himself, told Wexler that “This girl has taken that song from me. Ain’t no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her.” While the debate over the ownership of this song is probably futile at this point, I think it is interesting to think about in terms of originality and it reminds me of something Bernice Johnson Reagon brings up in her essay “Nobody Knows the Trouble That I See.” She writes that “Originality of voice and style is the true sign of a seasoned teacher. A true master is one who creates an offering with such power and originality that a new direction is established within the genre.” I think that this is the case for Aretha Franklin whose take on “Respect” was so important to empowering the women involved in the women’ rights movement.