Let’s say you’re a member of the Space Force and aliens come down to Earth demanding a 10-song playlist of our greatest music: What do you play them? Maybe even more importantly, what song do you lead off with?
“Respect” by Aretha Franklin, that’s what. Hit play on that song and you will blow their alien minds.
Aretha Franklin — who died in her Detroit home on Thursday at the age of 76 — was one of the greatest vocalists of all time. No one disputes this; it’s as close to fact as possible in the subjective realm of music criticism. And “Respect” is to her career what the Mona Lisa is to Da Vinci’s: While not her most impressive technical achievement, it’s certainly the most instantly recognizable.
Also like the Mona Lisa, “Respect” is utterly perfect, down to every detail. It is so perfect, it overshadows the Otis Redding original in the same way a mountain overshadows a boulder. And Otis’ version fucking slays.
But by definition, nothing can be better than the best. And Aretha’s version of “Respect” is the greatest song of all-time. Here are 10 of the countless reasons why.
- The bending notes of Cornell Dupree’s guitar as it chases the horn hits in the song’s opening. As mentioned above, “Respect” comes in HOT and the reworking of the original’s bright, bouncy arrangement into something sleeker and deeper is no small miracle. Engineer Tom Dowd was behind the boards on both versions of “Respect” and is credited with the song’s dynamic reinvention.
- Speaking of credits, everyone who worked on this song is an icon, from fabled producer and A&R man Jerry Wexler to tenor saxophonist King Curtis, who was tragically murdered four years after “Respect” became a hit.
- “WHAT you want!” Aretha hops into the song like double-dutch between the “woos” of her sisters’ backing vocals. But the next line is altered from Redding’s “baby, YOU got it” to “baby, I got it.” This completely changes the song’s narrative, not only in terms of reversing its gender and sexual politics but the meaning itself; “Respect” was a slang term for sex, making Redding’s lyrics something like a chauvinistic threat. In Franklin’s version, then, “Respect” is used as a clever double entendre and R&B fans at the time would have recognized her flip of the original as something similar to what Nicki Minaj just did to the Notorious B.I.G. on “Barbie Dreams.”
- Bassist Tommy Cogbill gets so deep in the pocket, little bits of lint look to him like clouds.
- As you may have noticed, the players that brought this song to life all have awesome names: In addition to the aforementioned Dupree, Cogbill and King Curtis, there was Spooner Oldham on the organ, Charles Chalmers on tenor sax, Willie Bridges on baritone and Gene Chrisman on drums.
- We also have to give it up to Aretha’s sisters Carolyn and Erma on backing vocals. When you’re singing along with the song (which, if you’re me, is basically every time, because it’s one of the most infectiously sing-a-long-able songs ever recorded) you’re doing the backing parts most of the time, which is a rare thing to say about a timeless hit.
- Case in point: Between “Just a little bit….” or “Sock it to me….”, which is more fun to sing? (The correct answer is both).
- The 16-seconds from 1:13 to 1:29 are the platonic ideal of what would later come to be known as “epic sax solo.”
- “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” How many hit songs don’t reach their most iconic point until you’re three-quarters in? “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “In The Air Tonight” are the only two that come immediately to mind. Beyond the songwriting, the structure of “Respect” is just thrilling….
- ….And yet so efficient. In less than two-and-a-half minutes, we get: Brilliant musicians (including Franklin on piano) performing a canonical piece of their genre; one of the best singers ever to record blowing open the gates of what would become one of the most influential careers in musical history; a strong, unambiguous viewpoint that serves as an enduring example of music with a message; one of the most irresistibly danceable songs ever recorded. As Wexler so astutely put it, “[‘Respect’] was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it’s hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.”
It’s for all of these reasons and others that “Respect” is the greatest song of all-time. Every time I hear it, my mind is fucking blown, just like those audiophile aliens.
May it never not be.