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This song is nearly 5 decades long but its subject still hits home

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The other day, NPR's Planet Money podcast team got a cassette in the mail. A cassette? You know what that is, right? Anyway, it had a word on it that they're very interested in, and the word was inflation. This cassette tape got reporters Sarah Gonzalez and Erika Beras tangled up in the music industry.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: We wanted to see what this cassette was about.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: So we put it in a cassette player and...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: You know...

GONZALEZ: It's a song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: ...With the food and rent going up daily...

GONZALEZ: ...A cool one about inflation. And it's good - right? - a little funky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: You see, inflation and taxation has taken over our great nation.

GONZALEZ: This song was actually recorded 47 years ago in 1975, when inflation was 9% - about the same as now. But the song was never released.

BERAS: The band that recorded it was called Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux.

EARNEST JACKSON: Yeah, Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux (laughter).

BERAS: This is the singer, Earnest Jackson.

JACKSON: You see, it takes a lot of ingredients to make a good gumbo.

GONZALEZ: You can't make a good gumbo without a roux. It's, like, a butter and flour base. Earnest Jackson is kind of like the roux to this song. He wrote it and is the lead singer.

JACKSON: A lot of people say I sound like Satchmo, you know, even when I talk - Satchmo, Louis Armstrong.

GONZALEZ: The guy who sings "What A Wonderful World."

BERAS: I kind of hear that. Yeah.

JACKSON: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: And everyone from this band went on to make it in the music industry, except the guy who wrote the song. Earnest has dreamt of stardom for almost 70 years.

JACKSON: Of course. Yes, indeed, 'cause that's been my dream since I was a little boy. I've always wanted to be a superstar. I feel like I had the potential. And, you know, I haven't given up my dream.

GONZALEZ: Listen, there are millions of artists and songs like this that no one ever discovers. And just because a song is good and of the moment doesn't mean it'll be a hit or make anybody any money. But we're going to try. We're going to take this long-lost song from the '70s and resurrect it.

BERAS: Because to us, Earnest's story is like a classic music industry story. He started singing when he was 5 years old. By 14, he's performing in nightclubs.

JACKSON: That's how it was down deep South here in Louisiana, baby.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

JACKSON: We could do our thing in the night club at 14.

BERAS: This is when Earnest recorded his first song with a friend.

JACKSON: Let's see. (Singing) Give me your love and all your time. Don't ever leave me 'cause I'd lose my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR LOVE WILL ALWAYS BE THE SAME")

JACKSON: (Singing) Give me your love and all your time. Don't ever leave me 'cause I'd lose my mind.

GONZALEZ: This is 14-year-old Earnest.

JACKSON: Fourteen - yeah, 14.

GONZALEZ: In college, he's with a band called Black Blood & the Chocolate Pickles and, of course, Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux. And all this time, he's just trying to land a record deal. And he gets close. He had a hit once.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND HAPPINESS")

JACKSON: (Singing) Love and happiness.

GONZALEZ: This is Earnest doing a cover of an Al Green song. If you've heard this song on an old jukebox, chances are, you've heard Earnest's version, not Al Green's.

BERAS: His cover peaks at No. 22 on the Billboard Magazine Hot 100 Charts. He's on the radio. But Earnest never got any royalties for this song.

GONZALEZ: He got a flat fee, $150 one time.

BERAS: Then he gets an idea for a new song. It's the '70s. Inflation is going up. Everyone felt the pinch.

JACKSON: Yeah, it was hard back then, I'm going to tell you the truth. Money could only go so far, you know? It's just like today.

GONZALEZ: He decides to write about inflation.

JACKSON: (Imitating drum kit) (Singing) Inflation is in the nation, and it's about to put us all away. You see?

BERAS: Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux, the band - they like the song. They decide to record it. They made a demo, that cassette. But then they don't do anything with it.

JACKSON: Nobody else has heard that song except the people who recorded it.

GONZALEZ: Earnest was sort of scared to play it for anyone because he thought anyone could just hear it and say it's theirs. He didn't know how to register a copyright for a song.

JACKSON: That's right. I didn't know. I did not know.

BERAS: "Inflation," like, regular inflation, eventually goes down. So this song kind of misses its moment. The rest of the band, they go on to play with famous people in famous bands. The bass player is actually a very young Randy Jackson, original judge on "American Idol." But Earnest, he stays in Baton Rouge waiting tables for 33 years at nice restaurants, the kind where you serve the drinks from the right, food from the left.

JACKSON: I made a very good living. I raised all my children.

BERAS: Today, Earnest is a grandpa and a great-grandpa. He's retired, but he still sings. He has shows here and there. He's just never been discovered.

JACKSON: I've never been signed by a label. That's my hope and dream.

GONZALEZ: Still is at 74 years old. So we've decided we are going to try to become like a record label ourselves, just to get this one song out there and try to figure out how the music industry works because inflation is back, so "Inflation," the song, might have a second shot.

BERAS: Earnest says making it, for him, would be getting in the car and hearing himself on the radio like he used to.

JACKSON: Yeah - Q106.5.

GONZALEZ: Q106.5? You want to be on Q106.5?

JACKSON: Yeah.

BERAS: So we pick up Earnest one day for a highly orchestrated car ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

JACKSON: I'm in.

GONZALEZ: We asked Q106.5 if they could play his song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DJ INCREDIBLE: It's DJ Incredible. Today, we're shining a light on a song sung by one of Baton Rouge's own, Earnest Jackson. Here's "Inflation" on Q106.5

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: You know...

GONZALEZ: Earnest says nothing for almost a full minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: It's becoming a day-to-day hassle just to survive. You see, inflation...

GONZALEZ: He's just kind of smiling and shaking his head like, no, no, no, no, no, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: (Singing) And listen to what I have to say.

JACKSON: Oh, this is blowing my mind. Is this actually - that's Q106, right?

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

JACKSON: How did they get that?

(LAUGHTER)

BERAS: How do you think they got it? We sent it to them.

JACKSON: Oh, man, that's out of sight. I mean, I can't believe this.

GONZALEZ: So we got one station in one city to play the song. Next up, the world.

Wait, can we be a label?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sure, why not?

GONZALEZ: Like, what do we have to do to be a label?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Say you're a label.

GONZALEZ: All right. We're a label. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

BERAS: I'm Erika Beras.

GONZALEZ: Our label, Planet Money Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: (Singing) What I have to say 'cause inflation... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.
Erika Beras
Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.