Aretha- (as told by Elle Magazine)
This article originally appears in the April 2016 issue of ELLE.
On Valentine’s Day in 1967, when feminism was sorely needed but had not yet ripened into a movement, a trim, dignified 25-year-old African American woman named Aretha Franklin walked into a New York City recording studio. Franklin’s idea was to take “Respect,” a song Otis Redding had released two years earlier as a man’s strident plea to his lover, and transform it into a woman’s sexy exhortation for human dignity. Pounding the piano righteously, with the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section (flown to New York for the session) behind her, Franklin sang the hell out of the song, and she spelled out its titular demand—letter by letter by letter.
Franklin remembers exactly when she first heard Redding’s “Respect” in Detroit. “I had just moved out of my father’s home and had my own little apartment,” she says. “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.” Some of the changes were little riffs—modernizing grace notes. “The term ‘Sock it to me!’ was a big, big thing in our neighborhood—all the kids were saying it,” Franklin says. Ditto “TCB,” a popular acronym at the time for “taking care of business.” Both made the new version.
The overall vibe of Redding’s song, in which he’s addressing his “little girl,” bears more than a hint of desperation. Despite his machismo (all those “got-ta, got-ta, got-ta”s), he’s telling her he’ll give her anything she wants (“What you want / Honey, you’ve got it / And what you need / Baby, you’ve got it”). Heck, he’s telling her she can cheat on him when he’s away as long as she gives him “a little respect when I come home”!
Franklin’s masterstroke was to flip that desperation into female power. She owns her self-worth in the first verse—”What you want / Baby, I got it”—and insists on one thing above all else: “A little respect when you come home.” “R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me,” she dares. Redding’s version was a plea; Franklin’s is a demand.
It is perhaps the most brilliant single act of pop reinvention in the history of American music, and it made Franklin a star overnight. Since that day, she’s placed 112 singles on the Billboard charts, including 17 in the top 10, making her the most charted female artist ever. She’s won 18 Grammys and sold more than 75 million records. In 1987 she became the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2005 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She heads the pantheon of great American singers and, following a life-threatening health crisis in 2010, her voice carries renewed strength and the wisdom of the ages.
Although Franklin demurs when it comes to talking about her personal life, it’s hard not to hear her passionate insistence on respect as a cri de coeur from a woman who has lived a whole lot of not-so-easy life, personally and professionally. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942 and raised in Detroit from age five, she’s the daughter of one of the most politically active preachers in America—C. L. Franklin, who marched with Martin Luther King. (Aretha would, very memorably, sing at his funeral.) Shortly after their arrival in Detroit, however, Aretha’s mother left her husband and six-year-old Aretha and moved to Buffalo, New York; Aretha saw her regularly, but her mother died when she was 10.
Franklin put out seven studio albums between 1961 and 1965 for Columbia Records, whose usually efficient starmaker, John Hammond, had dubbed her the next Billie Holiday. But she’d barely made a dent in the new Top 40 market, where soul and R&B were classing up mainstream radio with ridiculously infectious hits from Motown and from Ray Charles, whose gospel-soul style Franklin shared. But a female Charles, or Otis Redding, or Wilson Pickett—a young black woman with a powerful, poignant voice who “hit the pauses” with such emotional force—had yet to burst out of the more sophisticated musical niches to become a crossover artist, opening the eyes and ears of a broad American audience, schooling suburban kids in soul. “We didn’t have music videos,” Franklin says. “You weren’t an overnight sensation. You had to work at it and learn your craft: how to take care of your voice, how to pace your concerts, all that trial and error. I paid my dues, I certainly did.”
While Columbia didn’t seem to know what to do with Franklin, Atlantic Records, to which she’d decamped in 1967, was just the right fit: The company’s cofounder, Ahmet Ertegun, and producer Jerry Wexler were devoted to the blues. Still, the version of “Respect” that she laid down with her sisters Erma and Carolyn wasn’t a producer’s baby, it was Aretha’s. As Wexler recalled long after the fact, when hindsight rosily colors memory: “She came to the studio at 1841 Broadway and made a miracle.” But, Franklin says, Wexler was actually more cautious at the time. “Everybody was really, really excited, but Jerry said, ‘Wait until tomorrow. If we feel the same way about it as we do tonight, then maybe we have a hit.’ “
“I was stunned when it went to number one,” Franklin says today, “and it stayed number one for a couple weeks. It was the right song at the right time.”
“Respect” entered the American conversation the way only a handful of records ever have. It’s been sampled or played in 29 feature films—as diverse as Platoon, Mystic Pizza, Blues Brothers 2000, Forrest Gump, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Akeelah and the Bee—from 1979 to 2015. In the era-defining 1985 indie Desperately Seeking Susan, director Susan Seidelman used “Respect” for the moment when the hip, cocky protagonist (played by Madonna) trades identities with the mousy housewife (Rosanna Arquette) who covets her freedom and confidence. In 1988, the first episode of Murphy Brown, starring Candice Bergen, was titled “Respect” and centered on TV reporter Murphy’s return to the newsroom post-rehab. It ended with Murphy singing another Aretha trademark: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a song that brought Barack and Michelle Obama to tears when Franklin sang it last December at the Kennedy Center Honors, where its cowriter, Carole King, was being recognized. And Franklin herself appeared in a later Murphy Brownepisode, sitting at the piano with Murphy, because, Bergen tells me simply, “Aretha was and always will be, for all of us, the Queen.”
“People responded to ‘Respect’ as if the radio weren’t built for a sound so powerful, as if the music was coming straight out of the air from some all-global transmitter in the Arctic,” says music critic Greil Marcus. “‘Respect’ was a thrilling ride, and what made the music so big, so undeniable,” he adds, “was that it opened the door to the moral bigness of what Aretha Franklin had to tell the world, to a new definition of what ‘soul’ meant: that it could be all-consuming,” moving the listener as deeply as it did the singer.
Many interpreted the song as a civil rights clarion call, which Aretha proudly acknowledges, noting that she had written into her performance contract at the time that she’d never perform before a segregated audience. She’s just as proud of the feminist interpretation and points out that she’s always purposely sung the line “You know I’ve got it” straight, never for mere effect. “As women, we do have it,” she says. “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.”
Music critic Ann Powers says she thinks the song has endured as a theme song for the women’s movement in part “because it’s a conversation.” Franklin dresses down her man in the company of her sisters, who engage her with the kind of call-and-response so characteristic of African American gospel tradition—”You’re runnin’ out of fools (just a little bit) / And I ain’t lyin’ (just a little bit) . “They were in constant dialogue,” Powers says, “and this is what Aretha captures so beautifully: the sound of female solidarity, cultivated right under the noses of men.”
As the fiftieth anniversary of Franklin’s “Respect” nears, it’s remarkable that a female vocalist like Christina Aguilera, who was more than a decade from being born in 1967, calls the song “one of the best female anthems of all time. From the moment you hear the letters being spelled out in that sultry, soulful voice, with that melody,” Aguilera says, “you can’t help but pay attention and give the respect the song calls for and deserves.”
And Gloria Steinem, a journalist edging toward the crusade that would define her life when “Respect” hit the radio, says, “I always felt that nothing too bad could happen in the world while I was listening to Aretha Franklin. Everything was good, including that I could dance with nobody around. True, there was a line in ‘Respect’ that made me anxious for both of us: something like, ‘I’m about to give you all my money.’ But I figured Aretha knew what she was doing, and nobody was going to mess with her. With us.”
For Rebecca Walker, a prominent third wave feminist and author, as well as the daughter of civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal and renowned novelist Alice Walker, “This great call of self-love was so significant, a four-minute manifesto to declare what our lives should look like and feel like. ‘Respect’ spoke a great truth: that women—women of color especially—were to be seen, heard, and given their due. Recognized. Revered. Aretha set the baseline: Treat me right or get out. Is there a woman who can listen to that song, really listen, and think she should settle for anything else?”
“It was the first anthem of gender equality, really,” Alicia Keys says. “And Ms. Aretha just felt it. She’s one of the biggest reasons I write songs for us as women. The clear message of ‘Respect’ is something that we are still fighting for, and will continue to fight for and sing loudly about, until there are equal opportunities for all.”
I first heard Franklin in the early 1960s, when I was a 12-year-old whose family was in severe crisis: My uncle had tried to kill my father, who was romancing my uncle’s wife; my mother had tried to kill herself. We went from being an accomplished West L.A. family—my father was a neurosurgeon, my mother a Hollywood journalist—to fearing violence at any minute. I sat in my bedroom one day, literally wanting to die. I turned on my bedside radio and jiggled the dial, happening on a majestic voice singing what I now know to be “Trouble in Mind”—one of Franklin’s earlier Columbia releases—and the phrase “That sun is gonna shine in my back door someday” was a promise I grabbed onto.
More recently, I wrote about an advocate for sexually exploited girls named Harmony Grillo. She’d been sexually abused herself as a girl and then worked as a stripper to pay her and her boyfriend’s bills. Grillo mentioned two singers to me as inspirations: Rickie Lee Jones, whose pathos she related to, and Franklin.
I seized the opportunity to tell Franklin what Grillo had told me: “Whenever we’d get into a fight, it would end with him leaving—sometimes for days. As soon as he’d leave, I’d turn on Aretha Franklin and begin frantically, obsessively, cleaning my house to distract myself from the pain. I think I was trying to absorb some of Aretha’s strength. She was a ‘Do Right Woman’ who knew she needed a ‘Do Right Man,’ yet she found herself in bad relationships, another link in a ‘Chain of Fools.’ And when it came to the man she said she was going to give all her money to, she cried out for ‘Respect’—the song was eerily similar to my own situation. I believe that Aretha’s music planted seeds of longing for respect in my heart and eventually helped me to break through my denial.”
“That’s unbelievable—that makes it all worthwhile,” Franklin says when I finish telling her Grillo’s story, and my own. “Just to know I uplifted another person—I wouldn’t be doing anything else. In terms of helping people understand and know each other a little better, music is universal—universal and transporting.”
Franklin thinks feminism is working. “The president of the Kennedy Center is a woman. Women are moving into fabulous positions,” she says. The women she’s met and admired are a diverse lot: Coretta Scott King, Steinem, Oprah, Barbara Jordan. As for young female singer-songwriters, she’s a fan of Alicia Keys, Adele, and Jennifer Hudson; she calls Judy Garland “one of the greatest singers there was.”
When I ask Franklin about the presidential race and the current state of race relations, she seems reluctant to offer an opinion, saying instead, rather wistfully, “People are not as nice as they used to be. There used to be a time when we conversed. You don’t get a lot of real responses now. They used to be more polite and well-mannered people, generally. It’s minimal now.” She pauses, and then: “I think it would be a far greater world if people were kinder and more respectful to each other.” Respect: There’s that word again
Many thanks to Elle Magaizine for this fantastic article Elle Magazine