The chorus is nothing short of iconic: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”
Fifty years ago, in June 1967, Aretha Franklin’s fiery version of “Respect” reached the top of Billboard charts and launched the singer to the highest echelons of musical stardom. Her status as an R&B mega-diva would last for decades.
Many of her follow-up hits, including “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” would go on to become classics in their own right.
Now, “Respect” is known as a feminist anthem. But that wasn’t always the case.
What many listeners don’t know is that the song was not written nor originally sung by Franklin, but by soul pioneer Otis Redding. However, many of the song’s most recognizable and anthemic elements—spelling out the word “respect,” the interplay between Franklin and her background singers, and even the “sock it to me” line—weren’t present in Redding’s original version of the song.
Perhaps even more surprising to those not familiar with the original Redding version is the very different message conveyed by its lyrics. Franklin’s version of the song was a call to arms for women not receiving their due share of respect at home, at work, and in society as a whole.
Redding’s version of the song, on the other hand, reinforced the very structure which Franklin’s challenged—that is, one in which the man worked all day, paid the bills, and expected (even demanded) in return, respect.
Despite the irreverence, Franklin’s version of the song shows, well, respect for Redding’s original.
Franklin told NPR’s Terry Gross in a 1999 interview that she initially chose to cover the song not out of spite, but appreciation, saying, “Well I heard Mr. Redding’s version of it. I just loved it. And I decided I wanted to record it.”
Franklin worked with her sister to re-arrange the song and happened upon one of its most memorable elements.
“I was living in a small apartment on the West Side of Detroit. And—piano by the window, watching the cars go by, and we came up with that infamous line, the sock it to me line,” Franklin told Gross. “It was a cliché of the day.”
“Actually, we didn’t just come up with it, it was—it really was cliche,” Franklin said. “Some of the girls were saying that to the fellows, like, ‘sock it to me in this way’ or ‘sock it to me in that way.'”
Clarifying a common misconception, Franklin told Gross the line’s meaning was “non-sexual, just a cliche line.”
“But anyway,” Franklin said, “it just kind of perpetuated itself and went on from there.”
You might be wondering what Redding thought of all this.
“Well, he didn’t like it,” Mark Ribowski, author of Dreams To Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul, told NPR in 2015.
Redding eventually made his peace with the fact that Franklin’s version of the song had surpassed his own, though. According to Ribowski, during Redding’s performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, “He comes onstage and goes, ‘This next song is a song that a girl took away from me’—but he says it with the Otis charm, a little glint in the eye.” Ribowksi notes, “Otis couldn’t begrudge her that.”
Franklin’s version of “Respect” isn’t the only cover that went on to become a bigger hit than the original.
One of the biggest hits of the ’90s, Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” was also a cover. Unbeknownst to most listeners, the song was not originally sung by Houston, but by country singer Dolly Parton.
The original version of “I Will Always Love You” was written and recorded by Parton in 1973, and first appeared on her 1974 album, Jolene. The song quickly reached No. 1 on Billboard‘s “Hot Country Songs” chart and ended up being one of the year’s best-selling singles.
Parton re-recorded “I Will Always Love You” in 1982. That recording likewise landed at the top of the “Hot Country Songs” chart, making Parton the first artist to have ever reached No. 1 twice with the same song.
Despite the song’s success in the ’70s and ’80s, Houston’s 1992 recording of “I Will Always Love You” for the soundtrack of her film debut in The Bodyguard remains the quintessential version of the song for most listeners. Houston’s version spent a record-breaking 14 weeks at No. 1 on the US Billboard “Hot 100” chart.
To this day, Houston’s version of the song remains the longest-running No. 1 single from a movie soundtrack.
Though “Respect” and “I Will Always Love You” are the most notable examples of cover songs that went on to outperform the original versions, it’s a more common phenomena than many music fans might think.
Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” and Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” are all examples of songs written and first recorded by other artists. Tuck those away for your next trivia night.