Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding still hold sway over soul

Illustration for article titled Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding still hold sway over soul

Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin are linked in many ways, but most obviously by their recognized titles in the pop culture zeitgeist: The King and Queen Of Soul. The song that binds them, though, is “Respect.” Pounding yet pleading, Redding’s original version came out in 1965; it was a minor hit sung from the vantage point of a husband desperately needing “respect”—a euphemism for the ages—from his wife at the end of the day. Franklin’s 1967 version, modified slightly yet profoundly from Redding’s, turned a man’s demand into an anthem of female empowerment. Roles were reversing in the ’60s, and among those upheavals was the rise of black music to the peak of the previously white-dominated pop charts. The Civil Rights movement, Motown, and the constant osmosis between rock and R&B accelerated that radio revolution. Soul took over. But like the word “respect” in Redding’s song, the term “soul” started out as a euphemism. R&B still carried negative connotations for much of white America at the time, and the soul stamp was a way for black artists to break through—to gain respect—without fundamentally changing their sound. “Respect” was the exact opposite of a compromise: In Franklin’s hands it became not only a song of women’s liberation, but of black pride.

Naturally enough, “Respect” can be found on both Franklin’s The Queen Of Soul and Redding’s The King Of Soul. The two four-disc box sets are being released simultaneously to commemorate, in part, the 50th anniversary of Redding’s debut album, Pain In My Heart. Upon its release in 1964, the album failed to set the world on fire. But it did set the dynamic for the Stax/Volt sound to come—chunky stompers like “Hey Hey Baby” alongside simmering ballads like “Pain In My Heart,” both of which are included on The King Of Soul—as well as establish the Georgia-bred Redding as the legendary Memphis label’s rising star. The hits began in earnest soon after. From the highs and lows of “Ole Man Trouble” and “Tramp” (the latter a spitfire back-and-forth with Stax/Volt star Carla Thomas from 1967’s prophetically titled duet album King & Queen) to the blistering, boiling-point live versions of “Try A Little Tenderness” and The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The King Of Soul documents Redding’s brassy yet earthy voice as it matures from a foghorn into a finely tuned vessel of intimacy, delicacy, and power—the kind that only wavered when it was more powerful to do so. Backed in the studio primarily by Stax’s house band, the mighty Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Redding’s output never dropped below a house-shaking level of vitality, even when that seismic, gravelly force was bent toward the sweetest entreaty.

Franklin didn’t always have as steady of a backing group as Redding did with The M.G.’s, but her equivalent in the late ’60s and early ’70s was no less formidable: Alabama’s famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. With them, she tapped into her Southern roots—although raised in Detroit, she was born in Memphis—and found a new depth. Only six months younger than Redding, Franklin had already amassed a string of albums in the early ’60s that shot for pop crossover but mostly missed. Her switch to Atlantic in 1966 brought an instant string of hits as the alchemy between her supple, church-trained vocal acrobatics and Muscle Shoals’ impeccable grit brought hit after hit. But every justifiable bestseller included on The Queen Of Soul—from the pulsating “Chain Of Fools” to the sweeping “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—is only enhanced by lesser-known scorchers like the jazzy callback “Brand New Me” and her twang-laden rendition of The Band’s “The Weight.” Her cover of “Satisfaction” is more tightly wound and roof-raising than even Redding’s, and the live material featured on the box set is just as poignant and joyous. The timeline of The Queen Of Soul stretches beyond the ’60s to incorporate a handful of the ’70s classics she produced before leaving Atlantic in 1979, among them 1971’s “Rock Steady,” whose slinky, hypnotic groove proved she could be as adept at funk as she was at soul. It’s a sad fact that so few of her contemporaries were able to keep up with the times and maintain credible careers when tastes changed after the ’60s. Franklin’s saving grace was a force-of-nature intensity that made every syllable sound like survival.

Redding didn’t survive to enjoy the success of his biggest hit “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” Along with all but two members of his live backing band The Bar-Kays, he died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, a tragedy that put even more weight behind the song’s pensive, bittersweet edge. Earlier that year, Franklin had her biggest hit with her version of “Respect,” which makes the cut even more unkind—and the pair’s bond sadly stronger, considering her career took flight just as his came to a halt. The once and future monarchs of soul—she a former professional gospel singer, he the son of one—never got the opportunity to rule side by side. That Redding and Franklin continue to influence new generations of artists from CeeLo Green to Alicia Keys speaks not only of their distinction as musical icons, but of the tandem timelessness of the sound they helped crystallize.

In last year’s Respect Yourself: Stax Records And The Soul Explosion, author Robert Gordon recounts how Stax/Volt co-founder Jim Stewart was given the chance to buy out Franklin’s contract in 1966. The advance to bring Franklin to Stax would have been $25,000. Not seeing her potential, Stewart passed on his fellow Memphis native. One year later, she turned a modestly known Redding song into one of pop culture’s most potent and enduring anthems. For a brief moment, though, Redding and Franklin might have been label mates: the sweet, righteous messenger and the barrel-chested balladeer. Instead they’ve been united by history, and by the honorifics rightly echoed in The King Of Soul and The Queen Of Soul. But the titles don’t matter. Their songs—rousing, touching, and embodying both the tension and togetherness of their era—carry all the royal bearing they’ll ever need.