The Secret Jewish History of Aretha Franklin

To understand the close ties between the singer Aretha Franklin and Jewish musicians, writers, and performers, one need not have seen the 1982 TV special starring Rodney Dangerfield

The Forward
The Associated Press
Benjamin Ivry
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Credit: AFP
The Forward
The Associated Press
Benjamin Ivry

Aretha Franklin, the long-reigning “Queen of Soul” who sang with matchless style on such classics as “Think” and her signature song, “Respect,” died Thursday at age 76, said her representative, Gwendolyn Quinn.

The cause was advanced pancreatic cancer.

To understand the close ties between the singer Aretha Franklin and Jewish musicians, writers, and performers, one need not have seen the 1982 TV special starring Rodney Dangerfield (born Jacob Cohen) in which the comedian who famously got no respect feigns singing backup on Franklin’s 1967 recording of the song “Respect.” The concept of respect was as vital in reality to Franklin as an African-American woman as it was in jest to Dangerfield’s onstage character. The song which it inspired would again be featured by Dangerfield during the end credits for his comedy film “Back to School” (1986).

Franklin’s choice to cover “Respect,” originally written and recorded as a macho demand for domestic deference by Otis Redding, was due to the American Jewish producer Jerry Wexler (1917–2008), born in the Bronx of Polish and German ancestry. Wexler, who also played a significant role in the early career of Ray Charles, among others, has been called the “funky Jewish king of black music.” Stephen Whitfield’s “In Search of American Jewish Culture” points to the empathy that Wexler felt for the African American struggle for civil rights, quoting him as follows: “As a Jew, I didn’t think I identified with the underclass, I was the underclass.” Wexler’s astuteness and understanding made a difference in many music careers, not least Franklin’s. Working with her sisters Erma and Carolyn as backup singers, Franklin added to Redding’s original song the spelled-out word R-E-S-P-E-C-T, the significant abbreviation TCB (for taking care of business), and the raucous choral interjection, “Sock it to me, Sock it to me, Sock it to me.” Wexler’s further interpolations included the majestic tenor saxophone playing of King Curtis, who would perform with the organist Billy Preston on Franklin’s 1971 album “Aretha Live at Fillmore West,” galvanizing American pop music.

As Michael Billig’s “Rock and Roll Jews” notes, Wexler also alerted Franklin about American Jewish songwriters, including Burt Bacharach, whose “I Say a Little Prayer” she covered in 1968. Even more indelibly, in 1967 Wexler invented the song title “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” In a memoir, Wexler recalled how after having had this brainstorm, he assigned two Jewish songwriters, Carole King (born Carol Klein) and Gerry Goffin, to produce a tune for Franklin based on the title. The result was yet another iconic pop anthem. Franklin’s blend of gospel roots and glamorous, alluring vocal texture made “Natural Woman” into a giant hit.

Other Jewish songwriters and African-American performers shared similar collaborations. Franklin’s sister Erma, an elegant singer with a relatively brief career, was the first to record the love song “Piece of My Heart” by Jerry Ragovoy, of Hungarian Jewish ancestry, and Bert Berns, of Russian Jewish roots. According to Jon Stratton’s “Jews, Race and Popular Music,”, Erma Franklin drew on the gospel background which she shared with her sisters to make “Piece of My Heart” into an emotional, quasi-spiritual plea. Despite the attractions of her 1967 version, the song became a major hit only a year later, when it was covered by Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin as lead vocalist.

In 1971, in yet another unforgettable cover, Aretha Franklin recorded “Spanish Harlem,” a song created by three Jewish pop music stalwarts, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and the now disgraced Phil Spector. As these shared cultural experiences accumulated with her acclaimed recordings, some listeners drew ethical or moral conclusions from Franklin’s creative and interpretive accomplishments. In a book about parent-child relationships which appeared in 2011 from the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, professor of law at Emory University and former member of the Beth Din of America, explained how he was inspired by Franklin’s song “Respect.” Rabbi Broyde concluded that respect should be the essential component of the parent-child relationship from a Jewish ethical standpoint, even surpassing love. He added in a footnote: “To my dismay, this is also the first citation to Aretha Franklin in my work or, as far as I can tell, other works of Jewish law.” A useful precedent may have been set for interpreting halakha.

Another Jewish response to the songs of Aretha Franklin can be found in the playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” (1996). In Wasserstein’s play, one character chides another that “there is actual music past Aretha Franklin and the Beatles,” to which the reply is: “But I don’t like music past Aretha Franklin and the Beatles.”

Without necessarily sharing this viewpoint, music lovers today may concur that Franklin and other African-American performers, in close collaboration with Jewish colleagues, reached an apogee in popular music that is unlikely to be surpassed. Her biographer Mark Bego cites an interview given by Franklin to Jet Magazine in November 1970. Advocating a melting pot or tzimmes of identities and influences, she rejected categories or rigid identities in her music. Rather than stark identity politics, what mattered to Franklin was the communicative virtue of soulfulness, which she must have sensed in Jerry Wexler and other valued Jewish colleagues. This melding of cultures, styles, and sensibilities was somewhat ambiguously articulated in the article, which quotes Franklin as saying: “It’s not cool to be Jewish, or Negro, or Italian. It’s just cool to be alive, to be around. You don’t have to be Black to have soul.” Franklin’s point was that roots alone were no guarantee of coolness. Identity per se was not to be admired unless other positive elements accompanied it. These favorable aspects, as possessed by Wexler and songwriters in Franklin’s entourage, were essential for the shared public discourse which the world prized in her singing.

Franklin’s tzimmes approach has inspired new generations of listeners and musicians. One such is Joshua Nelson, an African-American gospel-inspired singer who has sung onstage at Franklin’s concerts as her opening act. After studies at Hebrew Union College and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Nelson became a full-time Hebrew language instructor at Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform temple in South Orange, New Jersey. In an interview from 2006, Nelson praised Franklin for mixing soul elements with rhythm and blues in music, by her own example validating his own amalgamated status as a champion of Hebrew culture and African-American music.

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