Some of the most iconic pop and rock songs of the past half century have been covers. These two weeks, I will take a look at these classics and their overshadowed originals.
Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is an all-time treasure. Rolling Stone ranked it one of the five greatest songs in rock history. Her rendition is so full and perfect — so central in her identity as a woman of power — that it’s surprising to learn that the song was a cover, and that the original almost didn’t get made.
Redding wrote the song for his friend and manager, “Speedo” Sims. Sims expected to record the song on his own, likely with his small-time band The Singing Demons. Sims recorded multiple takes of the song, but decided he couldn’t turn the composition into a good track.
The song almost died there. This surely happens thousands of times a year in the music industry. You couldn’t have blamed Sims or Redding for moving on. But Redding decided to give it his own spin. He included it on his album Otis Blue in 1965, which proved a breakout smash. Redding released “Respect” as a single, and it shot up the Billboard R&B charts (then still officially known as the “Black” charts).
Two years after that, in 1967, Franklin recorded her own version for her album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You. As the opening number and lead single, her “Respect” became a sensation whose popularity has endured.
I just re-listened to both tracks. It’s truly astonishing how much better Franklin’s cover is.
Redding’s original take features a slick rhythm and Otis’s incredible vocal power. But his reading is more percussive than it is tuneful. He makes the tune lean and muscular, with no tenderness. The production is underwhelming: The horn line sounds flat, and the drums are too prominent for my ears.
Most jarringly, Redding’s version misses the crucial bridge. No “R-E-S-P-E-C-T / find out what it means to me.”
Spotify has a live version of the song, which does sound a bit better. But it still sounds lifeless compared to Franklin’s reinvention.
Franklin not only improved the structure, she injected tons of personality. She sings with such conviction and urgency that critics have been debating the subtext for 50 years. Is it about sex? Feminism? Civil rights? All of the above?
A widely circulated quote from Redding upon hearing Franklin’s cover shows that even he got this:
“She done took my song!”