In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Some great artists are not appreciated in their times. Aretha Franklin wasn’t one of them. People knew that she was incredible.
Aretha Franklin was a chart monster. She was a chart monster ever since the moment, early in 1967, when she released her first Atlantic Records single and remade herself as a hard soul singer. In her lifetime, Franklin had 73 singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100. For decades, this was the most that any solo female artist had ever managed. On a 2 Chainz song last year, Nicki Minaj rapped, “I broke Aretha record.” Nicki was telling the truth, but Aretha Franklin did not get on there by rapping guest verses on other people’s songs. If you measure it like that, Franklin is still the all-time champ.
And yet Aretha Franklin only got to #1 twice in her career. “Chain Of Fools, “Think,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Baby I Love You,” “Spanish Harlem” — these were all huge records, top-10 singles, but none of them went all the way. And one of Franklin’s two #1 singles was “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” a 1987 duet with George Michael. It almost doesn’t count. The other Aretha Franklin #1, however, is the right song. If you had to boil Aretha Franklin’s power and craft and importance down to one song, “Respect” would be that song.
Now: “Respect” isn’t my favorite Aretha Franklin song. It’s not even my favorite song from the first album that she released on Atlantic; that would be “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” that album’s title track. (It was also Franklin’s first Atlantic single and her first top-10 hit.) “Respect” is a song that I’ve probably heard a thousand times in my life, a song that’s hard to hear with fresh ears. And yet it is an undeniable destroyer, a song of historic proportions.
“Respect” started out its life as an Otis Redding song. Redding wrote the song for the singer Speedo Sims in 1965, but Sims couldn’t get it right, so Redding took it for himself. It’s a raw and fiery song, a song about a man needing respect from his significant other when he gets home from work. He’s been out working all day, suffering whatever indignities a working black man would be made to suffer in 1965. He wants to be good to the woman in his life however he can. He promises, for instance, to give her all his money. But he also tells her that he needs a place where he can feel important. It’s a plea.
Redding’s version of “Respect” is a really good song, a great example of hard and unadorned mid-’60s soul. It was also a hugely important song for Redding — only the second single of his that crossed over to the top 40 of the pop charts. And yet Franklin’s version of the song immediately and totally eclipsed his own. He knew it, too. At the Monterey Pop Festival, two weeks after Franklin’s version of “Respect” hit #1, Redding introduced “Respect” as “a song that a girl took away from me… This girl, she just took this song!”
Franklin had been covering “Respect” in her live shows ever since Redding had released it. And when she recorded it, she radically made it over. In her hands, it’s a completely different song. The parts of the song that everyone remembers — the spelling of the title, the “sock it to me” — are hers. More than that, though, she destroyed and rebuilt the song just by being the one to sing it. Because, in the ’60s, there was one segment of society given less respect than black men, and that was black women.
But before we get into the resonance of Franklin’s “Respect,” it’s worth mentioning that it’s a fucking amazing piece of music, even divorced from its context. The groove is fast and nasty. Other than the King Curtis saxophone solo on the bridge (repurposed from Sam & Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” which Curtis had recorded the night before), every instrument on the song, including Franklin’s own piano, is part of the rhythm section. It’s a loose but precise groove, and Franklin falls right into it.
As a singer, Franklin starts the song at a 10 — “what you want!” — and she stays there throughout. She never dips. Franklin wasn’t controlled and modulated like Diana Ross or like any of the white pop singers who were dominating in 1967. She was an overwhelming force, drawing on her experience in the church and putting that same passion into demanding what she needed. There’s no real structure to “Respect,” no verse-chorus-verse. Instead, it’s built as a series of events, all of them welded to that groove. Franklin makes all of them sound like explosions.
Franklin was only 25 when she recorded “Respect,” but she’d already lived a life. She’d been a child gospel prodigy. She’d been a failed mainstream pop crooner. She’d become a mother three times over. She was almost finished with her tempestuous, abusive first marriage. And when she sang “Respect,” anyone listening could tell that she knew exactly what she was singing.
If Otis Redding’s “Respect” was a plea, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is a demand. It’s forceful, heavy, ferocious: “I’m about to give you all my money / All I’m asking in return, honey / Is to give me my propers when you get home.” And in singing about her own money, she neatly inverts the gendered economic dynamic of the original. She’s the one making the money, so she says what the fuck is up.
“Respect,” of course, hit the world when the Civil Rights struggle was near its peak and when the women’s liberation movement was just emerging. It worked as an anthem for both. On the paper, the lyrics are just about a relationship, not about the changing tides of history. And yet that history is there. People picked up on it. It was the perfect song, from the perfect person, at the perfect time. It’s already outlived Aretha Franklin. It’ll outlive the rest of us, too.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kool Moe Dee interpolating “Respect” and using it to warn about prison rape on his 1987 single “No Respect”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the only non-Aretha “Respect” cover I really like, the diva-house version from the New Jersey singer Adeva that was a UK hit in 1989: