Friday, October 1, 2010

October 1: Aretha Franklin, "Respect"

Artist: Aretha Franklin
Song: "Respect"
Album: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You
Year: 1967

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While ever singer has something in their voice that makes them distinctive, there are a handful of artists who have a voice that is beyond unique, and there is never any mistaking their songs.  These artists are the most elite performers in history, their voice is known around the world, and has influenced countless of later singers.  Though one can make a long list of such singers, one of the first and most important that one must discuss would be that of "The Queen Of Soul" herself, Aretha Franklin.  Even her name alone brings to mind many of her most famous songs, as they have become international anthems and still stand high above the many covers that have appeared over the decades.  Possessing one of, if not the single most powerful voice in history, Franklin showed her skill in many different styles throughout her career, from soft, amazingly soulful gospel songs to hard-hitting r&b-pop crossovers, and she remains one of the few artists who truly has "something for everyone."  Churning out a number of stunning records throughout the 1960's, there is no question that her breakthrough moment came in the form of her flawless 1967 release, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You.  Backed by some of the finest musicians of the day, the album shows every side of her talents, and it is this record that boasts what may very well be the most recognizable single in history: Aretha Franklin's 1967 cover, "Respect."

In every way, "Respect" is unmistakable, and this iconic existence begins as soon as the song does, as the twangy guitar riff from Jimmy Johnson has become nothing short of legendary.  Bringing an unsurpassed amount of soul and groove, the riff stands with the greatest rock riffs of all time, and its one-of-a-kind status lives in the fact that even after decades of hearing it, the riff still brings an amazing energy the moment it begins.  The other key element to the music found on "Respect" is the trio of saxophone players that give the song a brilliant sting and reinforce the r&b roots of the track.  While all three players sound fantastic, the blistering solo was played by their leader, none other than fellow music legend, King Curtis.  It is this element that sets Franklin's version apart from the original, as well as one of the main factors in the song shooting to the top of the charts.  The way in which the saxophone solo clashes with the Motown-esque rhythm section of bassist Tommy Cogbill and drummer Gene Chrisman is nothing short of musical perfection, as the trio manage to blend jazz, blues, and soul in a manner unlike any other recording.  The final element of the music on "Respect" is piano player Dewey Oldham, and it is his playing, which often seems to be a "response" to Franklin's vocals, that gives the song its signature "two step" groove.  Whether it is the groove, the bright saxophones, or the signature "sway" to the song, there is some aspect of the music that appeals to everyone on Aretha Franklin's "Respect."

Though one could go on for some time about the fantastic musical arrangement and performance found on "Respect," the fact of the matter is, even in the light of such exceptional musicianship, the focus of the song never moves from the phenomenal vocal performance of Aretha Franklin.  By 1967, she had already shown her uncanny ability to deliver vocals with amazing conviction, and yet it is on "Respect" that she shows that her voice can become that of a generation.  The moment she begins singing, she demands complete attention, and from the powerful, punching verses to the soaring choruses, every aspect of her vocal talent is on display.  Yet it is also within the unforgettable "break" section that the song excels, and this is due to the perfect backing vocals from Franklin's sisters, Carolyn and Emma.  The vocal performance here remains the high-water mark for both power and pure talent, and while many have covered her rendition, no performer since has come even remotely close to matching this iconic recording.  Due to the strength of her performance here, Aretha Franklin's version of "Respect" almost instantly became an anthem for a number of disenfranchised groups, and to this day it holds a similar position, again proving just how special a recording one can find within.  Perhaps due to the raw, clearly heartfelt vocals, perhaps due to the straightforward nature of the message she sings; regardless of the reason, there is simply no other vocal performance that even comes close to Aretha Franklin's performance of "Respect."

Strangely enough, as the song shot up the charts, it gained a bit of negative publicity due to frustrated comments by the songs' writer and original recorder, the one and only Otis Redding.  Having released his own version to moderate success two years earlier, Redding claimed that Franklin "stole" the song from him, but in retrospect, it seemed to be more of a jealous of success as Redding received all his due royalties from the songs' sales.  Amazingly enough, the original recording boasted musicians like Steve Cropper and Isaac Hayes alongside Redding, so it is even more stunning that the Franklin version has all but eclipsed the original over the decades.  Yet it is not all that surprising, as the voice of Aretha Franklin is beyond the term "legendary," and the song itself has taken on a life of its own, being used for countless reasons across the globe.  Even when it is not being used as a marching anthem, "Respect" is at its core a shining example of true musical perfection, as everything from the musical arrangement to the production to the spirit behind the vocals is deployed with absolutely flawless precision.  The way in which the almost over-blown saxophone of King Curtis contrasts the smooth rhythm section gives the song a fantastic depth, and one simply cannot say enough about the unparalleled vocal performance from Franklin.  Though she had a long string of unforgettable songs during the late 1960's and early 1970's, there is no other song in her catalog, or anywhere in music history, that comes close to the status and sheer energy found in Aretha Franklin's monumental 1967 single, "Respect."

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