I have written about Aretha Franklin in the past and will continue to do so in the future. If by some strange coincidence you have never heard Aretha’s version of “Respect”, then this is it.
After Franklin’s death in 2018, DeNeen L. Brown wrote a tribute to the song for the Washington Post.
When Franklin’s version of “Respect” was released in April 1967, it rose to number 1 on the charts and stayed there for at least 12 weeks. The country was in the middle of a revolution. The Vietnam War was raging and protests against it increased. By the summer, racist unrest would hit dozen of American cities, including Detroit.
The country was a box of tinder as people of color demanded equality and justice that were too long in coming. “Respect” would become an anthem for the black power movement, as symbolic and powerful as Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. […]
The song was very well received by the Black Power movement as well as feminists and human rights activists around the world. Your attraction remains strong. In the last year it has become a symbol of the #MeToo movement.
I grew up watching black radio stations and had a copy of Redding’s Respect.
Then Franklin’s cover started getting airplay. I was a huge fan of Redding, but after Aretha dropped her version, I don’t think I’ve ever played the original again.
By 1967, I was one of many militant Howard University students who would take over the campus a year later – demanding black studies and respect from the university for our activism. The late 1960s were years of change and upheaval for Black America, and that certainly included black women. Sisters like Shirley Chisholm I would step forward and assert myself, with Chisholm becoming the first black woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives in 1968. Other activists like Fran Beal would set up organizations for black women and demand respect from our often chauvinist brothers.
Fran Beal co-founded the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in 1968. From this the Black Women’s Alliance developed and then the Third World Women’s Alliance. TWWA developed an analysis that included race, class, gender and an international perspective. In 1969 Beal wrote one of the defining texts on black feminism: “Double danger: being black and female”.
Over time and as new generations became teenagers and young adults, Franklin was introduced to them. In 1980 Aretha released her 1968 hit “Think” through her role in The Blues Brothers.
The 1998 sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, was neither a commercial nor a critical hit, but it did include this memorable scene where Aretha did her thing.
It’s no coincidence that the upcoming Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, currently slated for release on August 13th, is titled Respect.
“Respect” isn’t the only Aretha song that is a hymn to me. Your 1967 rendition of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman)” coincided with a time and place where my sisters and I wore our hair as it came out of our heads, and were proud of our “natural” woman. Black Beauty.
In 2015, nearly 50 years after “Natural Woman” was recorded, Franklin’s performance of the song had the power to bring a US president to tears, as did Andy Kush in “Barack Obama Understood Aretha Franklin’s Greatness and Everyone” for Spin in wrote 2018.
The 44th President had a deep connection with Franklin’s music. She sang on his first inauguration, of course, and gave a rousing, gospel rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Franklin said she was dissatisfied with the performance and told Larry King the next day that the bitter cold weather affected her voice. (As a face in the crowd on that brutal February day, I can tell you that standing on two legs was a challenge at times, not to mention singing like them.)
Perhaps the better Obama-era achievement to remember Franklin is her triumphant appearance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors.
Franklin sings “(They Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”) written by Kennedy Award winner Carole King with then-husband Gerry Goffin in 1967. Barack and Michelle Obama sit on the balcony next to King. The songwriter’s reaction on Franklin is instantaneous and apparently overwhelming, kinetically reflecting the singer’s delightful ups and downs. Franklin sits at the piano knocking out the bluesy introduction to the song; King’s mouth falls open. Franklin unexpectedly jumps to a painful high register, around the second verse King is trembling, her eyes seem to roll back, she covers her face with her hands. The president’s reaction, at least what the cameras show, is more physically subdued. Early on, he wipes a tear from his face. In a later chorus, Franklin tries to sing along with a few words while sliding far behind the beat, staging ecstasy and abandonment, a over always has full control. He gives up soon enough and shakes his head as if he doesn’t believe what he’s hearing.
See for yourself: King’s bliss is just as contagious as Franklin’s performance is joyful.
While I’ve narrowed today’s story to just three of Aretha’s extensive song collections, I’m sure you have other favorites. Join me in the comments for a day of musical magic. We’re going to do “TCB” with the Queen.