Otis Redding was twenty-five years old when his third album Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul was released. It’s an album that showcases Redding’s formidable skills as a songwriter and musician, captured two years before his tragic death in 1967. The second track of Otis Blue is two minutes and eleven seconds long, a catchy but fairly forgettable tune. Redding croons over insistent percussion and brass riffs, addressing a female partner, whose demands he promises to give into, provided that she acknowledges his role as the man of the house. He also wryly suggests that the partner can run around behind his back if she wants, but when he’s in the house, he’s in charge. It’s a darkly funny and upbeat song, but had nowhere near the immediate impact or long-term cultural resonance of his original song “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” or his covers of “Stand by Me” or “Try a Little Tenderness.” Not a standout.
Otis Redding – Respect (10/14) | Source: SeriousLee/YouTube
Two years later, another twenty-five-year-old took the song into the studio. She stripped away its beat and replaced it with a staccato, foot-bouncing bass line. Then she spruced it up with dynamic background vocals, an unforgettable bridge, and a stronger, more diverse array of instruments. And she altered the perspective of the song so that it came from a woman’s point-of-view, her new lyrics better reflecting the sensibilities of the Civil Rights and women’s rights movements. Then she released it to the public. It was an instant, colossal hit, enjoying fifteen weeks on the Billboard chart, and a number one slot in May of that year. The song helped make her a domestic and international star, and now sits comfortably in fifth place on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” It is a song that defined a generation, a mainstay of radio to this day, and an enduring piece of American culture.
The song, of course, is “Respect,” and the artist the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. When producer Jerry Wexler played Aretha’s version for Otis Redding, as David Ritz recounts in his definitive biography of Aretha, fittingly titled Respect, “He [Redding] broke out into this wide smile, and said, ‘The girl has taken that song from me. Ain’t no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her.’” He knew he had just heard something special, and his prophecy was correct: Aretha, who quickly became a household name, the kind of artist whose star power conjured a desire for first-name basis, dined out for the rest of her career on that song. And it was not only in the case of “Respect” that a song soared to new heights after Aretha trained her eyes and ears on it. She applied what would become her signature reinterpretation strategies — one producer called it “Aretha-izing” — to hits by the likes of Carole King, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles. Aretha usually left the studio or stage with a hit, and from time to time her cover would grow even to surpass the original.
Aretha Franklin “Respect” LIVE Rockaplast 1968 | Source: IloveArethaFranklin/YouTube
I was sitting at the kitchen counter in my parents’ house recently when Aretha Franklin’s “I Say A Little Prayer” began playing on the radio. I looked up from my book and caught my dad’s eye. “Listen to this part here,” he said, putting down a dripping spoon and lifting his right hand to conduct. “Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you,” sang Aretha, while my dad drew invisible shapes in the air — what looked to my untrained eyes like vertical lines and ampersands. He looked at me expectantly. “‘The song’s in 4/4 but it’s got those 3/4 measures! That’s why it’s so catchy.” I closed my book and reached for my computer. Why did it sound so good? How did the original sound compared to Aretha’s? Was this striking alternation in the chorus her invention?
[Aretha Franklin] stripped away its beat and replaced it with a staccato, foot-bouncing bass line. Then she spruced it up with dynamic background vocals, an unforgettable bridge, and a stronger, more diverse array of instruments.
The sheet music revealed that the rhythm was built into the song from the beginning: composer Burt Bacharach designed the chorus to go from 4/4 to 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4, and back to 4/4 again. The piano lessons I took as a child got me far enough to know that this was not common in popular Western music; most music of this type lives only in 4/4, where four quarter notes rule each measure. Mixing and matching different time signatures is unusual, and can be tricky to perform. When Bacharach and lyricist Hal David gave the song to a young and talented Dionne Warwick in 1967, she got herself a huge hit. She sings it straight through honestly, the percussion keeping up with her clear, lithe voice as it speeds up to catch the changing rhythms of the chorus. It deserved the attention it got: it’s light, sweet, and beautifully orchestrated.
Aretha Franklin – I Say A Little Prayer: her very best performance! | Source: 49metal/YouTube
Now turn to Aretha’s version, released officially a year later. From the beginning it’s more grandiose, incorporating a darker bass line and moody piano. The first words you hear are sung sedately by her backup singers: “I say a little prayer for you…” Then Aretha enters, as if a curtain has been pulled back to reveal the star. She sings the first line solo: “The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup,” and then alternates with her backup singers, letting them accent her words with repetition, occasionally ceding the line so they can fill it in, building up in a crescendo to the chorus. This is where the time signatures flip, and Aretha — anticipating this tricky wave — paddles into position and deftly surfs it. She does not sing any lyrics in this portion all in a row; her backup singers carry the melody, and she only repeats the last word in each phrase, in a series of downbeats: “forever,” “ever,” “together.” With each of these intonations she lifts a little more restraint from her magnificent and dynamic voice, a gospelly style that builds and builds. She turns it from a little love song into a supplication; it’s odd to hear her reference something as mundane as “coffee break time” in this potent hymn. It was the bigger hit for Warwick, but it nonetheless became Aretha’s song. Burt Bacharach called it “the definitive version.”
Aretha usually left the studio or stage with a hit, and from time to time her cover would grow even to surpass the original.
Aretha Franklin was born in 1942 in Memphis, the child of C.L. Franklin, a famous preacher, and Barbara Siggers, a renowned pianist and singer. Her early life was marked by tragedy: her mother left her father in the late 1940’s and then died of a heart attack before Aretha turned ten. All of the Franklin children were quite musical, but their father knew that Aretha was something special. She taught herself piano and made her public debut as a singer in her father’s church in Detroit in the early 1950’s, astonishing congregants with her powerful voice. This was the beginning of her lifelong journey to enduring fame. Aretha Franklin toured as a singer with Martin Luther King Jr. at just sixteen, and would become a household name long before her thirtieth birthday. Her career would continue all the way until her last performance in November of 2017. Few artists start so early and stay active for so long.
Aretha Franklin (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Kennedy Center Honors 2015 | Source: BuddyBroadway/YouTube
How does a musician perform for sixty-odd years? She has to be exceptional in so many ways: tough, savvy, confident, adaptable. Above all she has to be a master of different kinds of time, and Aretha Franklin was the master of masters. She had a rare genius that allowed her to hear a universe of alternate possibilities in a song. She would take a song and reconfigure tempo, background vocals, orchestration, whatever stood in the way of her vision, and then add her own formidable voice and piano skills. This twisting of time signatures and rhythm sections turned softballs into hits. She had also that impalpable talent for recognizing trends in music and collaborating with artists who maintained her relevance as she got older — names like Elton John, George Michael, and Whitney Houston found their way onto her albums — and when she miscalculated and wound up with something hokey or out-of-step, she defended her choice and then moved doggedly forward. Time never seemed to catch up with her.
I was looking around on Spotify for Aretha gems and I found her cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles’ legendary treatise on modern loneliness. My jaw dropped. Aretha had taken this violin-heavy ballad and turned it into an upbeat pop piece, replete with chirpy backup singers and a reworked set of lyrics that recast her as the protagonist of this sad song. I listened for echoes of Paul McCartney’s gravitas but heard only incongruous cheeriness. I had just finished David Ritz’s Respect, and was thinking a lot about the way he had detailed her incredible resilience — resilience that came largely, he and those close to her claimed, from stubbornness. She simply refused, time after time, to acknowledge the dark times in her life, and there were more than plenty. After a particularly difficult year she released an album called So Damn Happy. Maybe to master time you have to shove it away.
My favorite Aretha cover is Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It’s the full bouquet of her genius on display. Simon & Garfunkel’s solemn original is gorgeous: it swells from just Art Garfunkel’s voice echoing over a piano to an orchestral tsunami by the end. It’s hard to categorize — it’s anthemic without being attention-seeking, not similar to anything else on the chart in 1970 — and it grew into a huge hit. Aretha, who in 1971 was in year four of her reign as the Queen of Soul, heard something different in the one-year-old hit. She took this staid, lonely work and gave it a liturgical makeover, and in the process also made it funky and approachable. The influence of gospel music is immediately obvious in her version. The song is stretched out, giving the cantor plenty of space for riffing and looping. An organ swoops and punctuates. The choral backup singers repeat key phrases that have been adapted from the original lyrics (“Don’t trouble the water” // “Why don’t you, why don’t you, let it be” // “Still water run deep…yes it do”). It’s gloriously religious without turning syrupy, and her riffs are untouchable. It’s hard not to feel moved by it.
Aretha Franklin “Bridge Over Troubled Water” | Source: Kevin Wright/YouTube
Respect details one of the most difficult periods in Aretha’s life: when her beloved father C. L. Franklin was shot in his Detroit home in 1979, apparently the victim of burglars. The first report Aretha heard was that her father had died, but he was stabilized in a coma. For five years he remained comatose, with his children supporting him financially and spending time by his bedside. Aretha footed the vast majority of his medical bills with earnings from her career, but could not go see him often, according to her family, because after visiting she often became overwhelmed by grief. She gave a cagey interview to the iconic Black popular culture and fashion magazine Jet, sharing her belief that her absent father was doing just fine. It was a defiant gesture, one that, to me, bespeaks both the intensity of her denial and the difficulty of being in the public eye in a time of grief. It must have taken steely resilience to continue to perform under such circumstances, but it seems that much of this resilience was built on the — perhaps unrealistic — hope that her father would eventually get better. He died in 1984 without ever having woken up. The masterful rewiring of time that Aretha employed over and over again in the studio was no match for this cruel diminuendo.
She simply refused, time after time, to acknowledge the dark times in her life, and there were more than plenty.
I am most moved by the flexible spirit of this iconic artist. Aretha was a complex person of many contradictions — often difficult to work with and unwilling to compromise, stubbornly assured of the invincibility of her own opinions, yet brilliant in her craft, and extraordinarily generous with her time, talent, and finances. Those closest to her expressed both frustration and awe: Aretha willfully misremembered many difficult portions of her life in order to paint a rosier self-portrait, but, like many of us, did so to maintain her sanity, and to march determinedly forward with her life. She famously stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 GRAMMYs, singing the tricky opera standard “Nessun Dorma” at the last minute, with no dress rehearsal, in a different language than she spoke, seemingly out of her own genres. Her performance brought down the house. It’s not the finest example of her voice, but it might be one of the finest examples of her fearlessness.
Aretha Franklin “Nessun Dorma” Liveᴴᴰ (Grammy Awards) | Source: íԹ Ignazio Parente/YouTube
When I listen to Aretha sing I catch myself pausing and rewinding, pausing and rewinding. I listen for unusual riffs and unexpected rhythms, fossils to unearth from the mind of a musical genius. I am amazed by the way she could take an established hit into the studio and emerge with something brilliantly different, a song that floated right into the magic crux of novelty and familiarity. She was there herself, an artist deeply informed by her past and hyper-conscious of the future. I press buttons on a tiny screen — playing with time in my own way — imagining Aretha stepping into the spotlight, reaching for the mic, and changing music forever.