Aretha Franklin’s signature song, “Respect,” was originally recorded by Otis Redding in 1965. Her version, just two years later, is the one that became a classic, and a part of American history
Contributor Kelefa Sanneh asked Jennifer Hudson, “Why do you think that song, ‘Respect,’ has become such a touchstone?”
“Think about what it represents,” she replied. “You mean to tell me a Black woman in the civil rights era was bold enough to come and take a man’s song, make it her own song, make it an anthem, and it’s a representation of people and of that time? That’s powerful.”
Hudson, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning actress and singer, plays Franklin in a new film, “Respect.”
“The movie’s called ‘Respect,’ it’s about Aretha Franklin, the movie’s gonna live or die based on your performance of this song, right?” asked Sanneh.
“Don’t kill me!” Hudson laughed.
To watch a trailer click on the video player below:
She said, “That is the song, out of all the songs, that stunted me, that made me stop, say, ‘Wait a minute…'”
“How did you comfortable enough to say, ‘I’m just gonna do it’?”
“I’m just gonna do it! All I hear is that voice: ‘Jennifer, now you go do,’ you know? And it’s like, okay. Well, I got my marching orders.”
Those “marching orders” came straight from Aretha Franklin herself, who was impressed by Hudson’s 2006 performance in “Dreamgirls,” and handpicked her for her true dream role.
Hudson said, “The very first thing Aretha said to me when we sat down was, ‘You’re gonna win an Oscar for playing me, right?’ Huh? I didn’t know what to say. And then maybe eight years after that, I was doing ‘Color Purple.’ That’s when she gave me the call and said, ‘Young lady, I’ve made my decision. It is you who I want to play me, and don’t say nothing.’ I was like, ‘Yes, ma’am, I won’t.'”
The film chronicles the joys and sorrows of Franklin’s life. She became a mother at age 12. She struggled to escape the influence of her father, the powerful Detroit preacher C.L. Franklin. She had an abusive relationship with her first husband, Ted White. And she battled alcoholism.
Sanneh asked, “Do you think she was happy?”
“I think she found her happiness.”
“You get the sense she didn’t always have the kind of joy that most of us would have wanted her to have.”
Hudson said, “Well, that’s life. And it’s also something that just comes with entertainers and performers, which I could even relate to myself, you know? You’re always expected to be on, to be happy. But that’s the power in stories, to show there was a life going on behind that song.”
Franklin had an extraordinary voice, but she was still figuring out how to use it in 1967, when her record company convinced her to travel to Fame Recording Studios, in a Northern Alabama town called Muscle Shoals. Countless great singers recorded there: Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Etta James.
Sanneh caught up with Jennifer Hudson as she visited the legendary studio for the first time.
“You can feel, like, the magic I feel like that’s taken place,” Hudson said.
It was in that room, and at that piano, that Franklin recorded her breakthrough song, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”:
David Hood and Spooner Oldham were Muscle Shoals musicians at that session. “She didn’t know who these White guys were that were supposed to be playin’ on a rhythm and blues record,” said Hood. “They had a song for her. And I don’t think any of us were very impressed with the song.”
“But you hadn’t heard her sing it yet?” said Sanneh.
“We haven’t heard her, for one thing!”
Oldham said, “And then all of a sudden it’s like, I just started noodlin’, and they says, ‘Spooner’s got it.'”
Oldham came up with that electric piano riff; Hood was on trombone.
“I think that was it. Two or three times, we were done,” said Oldham.
“I made $95.87 playin’ as a musician,” Hood said. “And I was happy.”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was good pay!” Oldham laughed.
The session was cut short, after an altercation between Franklin’s husband and the studio owner, and she never returned to Fame. But she kept working with many of those musicians, including Oldham, who helped her record an even bigger hit a few weeks later: “Respect.”
Sanneh said, “She never sounded the same after she came here.”
“That’s artistry,” Hudson said, “’cause she could recreate it, shape it.”
To pull off the role of Aretha Franklin, Hudson, who’s 39, put herself through “Aretha school,” as she calls it. She even learned how to play the piano.
Hudson has always drawn inspiration from Franklin. She launched her career, in 2003, on “American Idol,” and she auditioned, of course, with an Aretha Franklin song: “Share Your Love with Me.”
Sanneh asked, “If you had told that contestant who finished seventh on ‘American Idol’ in the third season how far those Aretha Franklin songs would take her, what do you think she would have said?”
“That blows my mind!” said Hudson. “Like, now when I look at those auditions, it’s like, ‘Woah, what is this?’ Like, well, keep singing those songs, Jennifer!”
Like Franklin, Hudson got her start by singing in church. And like Franklin, she has suffered family tragedy. Franklin’s mother died when she was young, and her father was later killed by burglars. In 2008, Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew were murdered by her sister’s estranged husband. Hudson said she used her own grief to help tell Franklin’s story
“I was like, is this my life? Is this her life? But I know it’s my real emotion that’s telling this story. There’s no way I would have been able to deliver this or tell this in such a honest, vulnerable way to those depths without my own life experiences.”
Over the years, Hudson’s relationship with Franklin ripened into a real friendship. Before Franklin died in 2018, at the age of 76, they spoke weekly. “It was always her saying, like, ‘Make sure you own your voice and be who you are.'”
And at Franklin’s funeral, Hudson sang “Amazing Grace”:
Hudson said, “I can only try to continue to do everything from the heart. And that’s another thing that’s helped me, sustained me through it all is, like, do it out of love. Do it out of respect. Do it out of appreciation. And I tribute her my whole career, you know? So it’s like, let the tribute continue.”
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Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Editior: Remington Korper.