The Meaning Behind Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”

Originally written and recorded by Otis Redding in 1965, off of the soul singer’s third album Otis Redding Sings Soul, “Respect” was never the same once Aretha Franklin rearranged the song and transformed it into an anthem of female empowerment.

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A Song of the “Changing” Times

In 1967, the Vietnam War was raging, and in the U.S. there were ongoing socio-political struggles with the civil rights movement and women’s movements. That year, President Lyndon Johnson first called for an end to racism and eventually signed an executive order that expanded affirmative-action legislation to cover sex discrimination.

Meaning Behind R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The way Franklin spelled out R-E-S-P-E-C-T ensured the message was loud and clear. She flipped the song from a plea from a man to the woman he loves to a woman’s demand for respect. In Redding’s version there was no spelling of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” and no backup singers. In its original form, the song also played out as a more male-dominated relationship (i.e. show respect to your man), until Franklin called for “respect” towards women. The song became a running anthem for the feminist and civil rights movements throughout the 1970s.

Find out what it means to me
Take care, TCB
Oh (sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me)
A little respect (sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me)
Whoa, babe (just a little bit)
A little respect (just a little bit)
I get tired (just a little bit)
Keep on tryin’ (just a little bit)
You’re runnin’ out of fools (just a little bit)
And I ain’t lyin’ (just a little bit)

In her 1999 autobiography “Aretha: From the Roots,” Franklin called the song “an ongoing blessing” in her life. “It was the need of a nation,” she said, “the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect.”

The 1968 Grammy Awards (and Beyond)

“Respect” earned Franklin two Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording and Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female. Franklin’s “Respect” was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2002, the Library of Congress added Franklin’s version of the song to the National Recording Registry, and her “Respect” was also included in the list of “Songs of the Century” by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Sock it to Me”

It was never in the original Redding song, but Franklin and her sisters added the trademark line sock it to me to the song. Her sisters Erma and Carolyn Franklin can be heard singing the added line. Though the term was often considered a sexual reference, Franklin denied this in an interview. “There was nothing sexual about that,” said Franklin in 2014. “It’s like if you gave me a high five.” In the 1970s, the “sock it to me” caught on as a catchphrase on the TV show Laugh-In and was also used in the 1967 Syl Johnson song “Come On Sock It To Me.”

“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,” said Franklin in 2016, elaborating on her added lyrics. “The term ‘Sock it to me!’ was a big, big thing in our neighborhood—all the kids were saying it. The same goes for ‘TCB,’ an acronym for ‘taking care of business.'”

“ree, ree, ree, ree”

The refrain of ree, ree, ree, ree in “Respect” is a nod to Franklin’s nickname, “Ree” (as in A-Ree-tha).

(Re, re, re, re) when you come home
(Re, re, re, re) ‘spect
Or you might walk in (respect, just a little bit)
And find out I’m gone (just a little bit)

In the Movies… and Music

“Respect” has been featured in all genres of films throughout the decades, including Forrest Gum,  Back to School, Platoon, and Mystic Pizza, and has been covered by everyone from Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, and The Temptations and Kelly Clarkson.

Jennifer Hudson Shows Her Respect

Still part of the late singer’s legacy, “Respect” is also the title of the 2021 biopic on Franklin’s life, starring Jennifer Hudson. Hudson grew up on Franklin and even became friends with the legend prior to her death in 2018. In 2004, Hudson even sang Franklin’s 1970 song “Share Your Love With Me,’ off the icon’s 16th album This Girl’s in Love with You, for her audition on American Idol. When Hudson was eliminated from American Idol, Franklin asked the young singer to open up for her at a show in her in Merrillville, Indiana.

“She’s always been that influence and blueprint,” Hudson told American Songwriter in 2021. “And [especially from] growing up in the church. So, it was a dream of mine to play her. And then later, it became her request herself for me to play her. So, it’s the most personal project.”

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 get home (just a little bit)
Hey baby (just a little bit) when you get home
(Just a little bit) mister (just a little bit)

Photo: Atlantic Records

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