In an exclusive excerpt from Aretha Franklin: The Queen Of Soul, best-selling author Diane Mckinney-Whetstone shares why the Detroit diva still rules.
I remember Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." In 1967 it was omnipresent. The song blasted from record players in blue-lit basement parties and out of solid oak living room stereo consoles. It blared from radios in cars and shops and hair salons. People hummed it and sang it out loud. Little girls even chanted it during their double Dutch games.
And on Friday evenings you could almost feel the song's essence sifting through window screens up and down the West Philly blocks of my youth. Workweek done, paychecks cashed, bread dough rising, butterfish sizzling in the cast-iron skillet—it was grown women's "give me my propers" revival time, with Aretha as the "lady preacher" sermonizing to the beat. Men may have snapped their fingers to the invigorated rhythm or danced the boogaloo to the horn solos, but women claimed the lyrics as their anthem. Ironically, however, it began as a man's song.
Otis Redding wrote and recorded "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" in 1965. But his version was conventional—a man bringing home his money and looking for a little something in exchange. Aretha's version was like a reversible coat that's monotone on the outside but richly textured and boldly hued on the inside. She ripped through the seams and let the colors show, turning it into something a woman could let hang from her shoulders like the furs Aretha famously wears. With her sisters Carolyn and Erma singing, "Sock it to me" in the background and Aretha herself going to church on the piano, she offered up a voice that is both of this world and holy. It has astounding range and an ability to engage head, heart and soul in a transcendent swirl. She changed the game with that song.
In a period in which "barefoot and pregnant" was still a thing, Aretha was acknowledging that we were moving into T.C.B. time, that now the woman was also the one with the money to give. It was a revolutionary stance in an era of revolution: Raised Black fists demanded it; Black-is-beautiful mile-high fros personified it; an energized women's movement marched toward equality in pursuit of it. It was galvanizing: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We sang the song on our way to Sunday school.
Young girls, with our Dixie Peach–infused barrel-shaped bangs and matching coatdress ensembles, still in kitten heels and training bras, trying to pilfer money from our church envelopes to buy a bar of candy for a nickel. The lyrics resound with prerogative, and I'd always stop to breathe before the line, "I'm about to give you all my money." They were words meant to be belted out, but they were also worthy of being imbibed. Even back then I had the sense that Aretha wasn't just talking about dollar bills. The money line was also a metaphor for a woman's value. She was essentially saying this is not about loving—not even about liking. This is about acknowledging my oh-so-worthy existence in all of its fineness and substance and depth. Young-girl me could have aptly sang, "So I'm about to give you a slow dance…my thoughts on the war in Vietnam…a lick of my Mister Softee cone…the right answers to the algebra quiz…the tip of my tongue should we kiss."
From "You a no good heartbreaker, a liar, a cheat" in "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)" to "You make me feel like a natural woman" in "A Natural Woman" to "Move your hips with a feeling from side to side" in "Rock Steady" to "A woman's only human" in "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," she makes you understand she's not just a plaything—she's flesh and blood just like her man in "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." She lays it bare, not with a head-hung-low hopelessness of a victim but with the audacious regality of a queen.
In an age when one is here today and gone 30 seconds later, Aretha has remained relevant because she has been uncompromising in her embrace of her gospel roots, her Black culture, her womanhood. And she can still set a trend. Just consider the hat she wore when she sang "My Country "Tis of Thee" at Barack Obama's first inauguration. The gray, softly felted, close-fitting accessory with an oversize bow outlined in rhinestones stole the show and catapulted its maker, Luke Song, to international fame. The hat has stopped over at the Smithsonian and will ultimately live at President Obama's library. It's a fitting home and apt respect for a crown worn by the undisputed Queen of Soul.