One of the most important songs in American popular music is Otis Redding’s “Respect”. Most know it as an Aretha Franklin song, which adds to its importance.
In 1965, Black men were seen by white society as entertainers and criminals. (Has anything changed?) They had not yet become prominent in “white” sports. (I will defer to others for that history, interesting and complex as it is.) Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs had just arrived on the scene. The Black Power movement was in its early stages. The Black Panther Party did not yet exist.
Black men were not respected in the workplace or in society. Otis Redding’s “Respect” was a Black man’s plea for respect in the one place it might be attainable – at home.
While Black men could entertain us, they could not lead us (i.e. were not accepted as leaders.) Booker T and the MGs were an outlier. Booker T. Jones was a Black man, keyboard player, and bandleader. He fronted a mixed band with Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass (replacing Lewie Steinberg in 1965), and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums. Black and white men figured equally in the band’s music, with Cropper and Dunn proving that white men can have rhythm. (Cropper was co-writer on some of the great soul hits, including “Knock on Wood”, “In the Midnight Hour” and “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”.)
Women in general, and Black women in particular, fared no better. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was published in 1963, ushering in the Second Wave of feminism in the US. The movement was still in its infancy in 1967 when Aretha Franklin released her interpretation of “Respect”. It was in 1964 that Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) infamously said, “the only position for women in SNCC is prone”. While defenders indicated the statement was made in jest, it did reflect, with notable exceptions, the position of women in regards to leadership at the time – and that it was considered by men to be a joking matter.
It was in this context that Aretha released her interpretation of the song. It was (too widely) accepted that “a man’s home is his castle” and that for whatever power a man lacked in the world, he could assert that power over a woman at home. Aretha, in a classic call and response from the idiom of Black gospel music, answered Otis’ call for respect at home with one of her own.
When we hear “Respect” in either of these great versions we are hearing the state of “race” relations in the US and the state of gender relations as well. While we mostly hear them as great songs, they are bigger than the three minutes of a pop song. They capture a moment in our history; a moment that has gone on too long.
While it has been years since I read them, my thinking here was undoubtedly influenced by the work of Craig Werner in “A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America” and “Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul”.