We start a record label to release a song about inflation : Planet Money We try to start a real record label. Just to put one song out there. It's a song about inflation, recorded in 1975... and never released. Until now.

(This episode is part one of a series)

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Planet Money Records Vol. 1: Earnest Jackson

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

So the other day we got this cassette tape in the mail - dusty, old. And someone had written a word on this cassette that we are very interested in, the word inflation.

ERIKA BERAS, HOST:

So we put it in the cassette player and...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: One, two, three, four.

EARNEST JACKSON: You know, with the food and rent going up there...

GONZALEZ: It's a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

JACKSON: ...Man, it's becoming a day-to-day hassle just to survive.

GONZALEZ: A cool one about inflation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

JACKSON: (Singing) ...Taxation has taken over our great nation. People, stop what you're doing and listen to what I have to say. Inflation is in the nation, and...

GONZALEZ: And it's so good - right? - a little jazzy, funky, kind of muddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

JACKSON: (Singing) I can see a depression coming on, but like most of you...

BERAS: Inflation is in the nation. I can see a depression coming on. We honestly got a little obsessed with this song when we first got it, and the song that we think is pretty good was never released. So we had to know what the story was behind it. So we started calling up everyone who was on it.

GONZALEZ: And the more we looked into this song, the more we got sucked in and all tangled up in the music industry. This song was recorded 47 years ago in 1975, when inflation was 9%, about the same as now.

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

JACKSON: Hey, 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, you see?

GONZALEZ: You can't make a good gumbo without a roux. It's like a butter and flour base, very important part of a gumbo. And Earnest, he is kind of like the roux to this song. He wrote it and is the lead singer on it. Of course, he sounds a little different today.

JACKSON: I guess it's because I'm older, you know? A lot of people say I sound like Satchmo now, you know, even when I talk.

GONZALEZ: That you sound like what?

JACKSON: Satchmo - Louis Armstrong.

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

BERAS: I kind of hear that, yeah.

JACKSON: Yeah. 'Cause I do have a little extra gravel in there, but it's more gravel now.

GONZALEZ: All right. When Earnest and the band made this song, they were young - teens, in their 20s - but they were talented. And everyone from this band went on to make it in the music industry. The keyboardist, the guitarist, the bass player, they're playing with famous people in famous bands. One of them even won a Grammy and got, like, real legit fame.

BERAS: But the person who wrote the inflation song and sings the inflation song, Earnest, he never got his big moment.

FREDDIE WALL: Earnest got that moment stolen from him. Personally, that's what I feel. And I've thought about him often.

BERAS: This is the guitarist on the song, Freddie.

WALL: But Earnest Jackson was - he was special, and he just didn't have the run he should have had.

GONZALEZ: Earnest Jackson, the roux to the song, the voice, he's dreamt of stardom for almost 70 years.

JACKSON: Of course. Yes, indeed. Because 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. I pray on it all the time.

BERAS: Earnest, by the way, did not send us this cassette. Earnest actually hadn't heard this song in a long time. Neither had anyone else in the band.

GONZALEZ: Really, no one has heard even a piece of this song except us - you and us.

JACKSON: Nobody else has heard that song except the people who recorded it. Other than that, it's just been a song that's been sitting in the can a long time.

GONZALEZ: And listen, there are millions of people like Earnest Jackson, artists who maybe should have made it. And there are millions of songs like this, too, great songs that no one ever hears, that don't get released or don't become hits.

BERAS: This song kind of missed its moment 47 years ago. But when inflation goes away, it is by no means final. And the fact that inflation is back means there's this rare opportunity to change music history.

GONZALEZ: We've always been curious about the music industry. And when "Inflation" the song just kind of fell into our laps, it felt like we were meant to be together, like we are supposed to do something with this. So we're going to take this long-lost song from the '70s and resurrect it, get everyone in the world to hear "Inflation" the song. Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

BERAS: And I'm Erika Beras. Inflation is back.

GONZALEZ: It's back.

BERAS: But the music industry has completely changed in the 47 years since Earnest and the band recorded their song.

GONZALEZ: And now, just because the song is good and of the moment doesn't mean it'll be a hit or make someone famous or make anybody any money. But over the next few episodes, we're going to try. We're going to try to understand why some music is profitable and some is not.

BERAS: Here at PLANET MONEY, when we don't understand something, we throw ourselves into the business. We made a T-shirt to explore global trade. We drilled for oil, sent a satellite into space, created a comic book.

GONZALEZ: Today on the show, we're getting into the music business. We're going to try to start a real record label just to put this one song out there. Maybe inflation could be a good thing. It's Part 1 of a series - a second chance for Earnest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ELLGREN'S "SUPERFLY FEVER")

BERAS: OK. Earnest Jackson's story and what happened to the "Inflation" song is, to us, kind of like a classic music industry story.

GONZALEZ: His success and, more importantly, his lack of success tells us a lot about how anyone makes it in this industry. Earnest started singing when he was 5 years old. By the time he's 14, he's in a band, Little Earnest and the Titans. He's doing a lot of Ray Charles back then, Sam Cooke.

JACKSON: I like rhythm and blues 'cause I started singing that first in nightclubs when I was 14.

GONZALEZ: Fourteen in a nightclub?

JACKSON: Yeah, 14 in a nightclub. That's how it was down deep South here in Louisiana, baby. We could do our thing.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

JACKSON: In the nightclub at 14. And I mean, I used to have them jumping out on top of the tables, you know?

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

This is when Earnest really develops his stage presence. His big thing is the color burgundy. He's always liked how burgundy looks against his brown skin. And Earnest had presence and confidence.

JACKSON: I had the swag (laughter). You know what I mean? Yeah.

BERAS: This is when Earnest says he recorded and wrote 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'll 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'll lose my mind.

GONZALEZ: This is 14-year-old Earnest.

JACKSON: Fourteen, yeah. Fourteen.

GONZALEZ: Were you writing it with a particular person in mind?

JACKSON: Well, I had a girl back in high school, and we were pretty jam. But, you know, life goes on.

BERAS: Earnest graduates high school in 1966 and joins the Air Force during Vietnam. He gets out in 1970, gets married, has kids, goes to college - still singing.

GONZALEZ: He joins new bands now when he's in college like this one called Black Blood & the Chocolate Pickles. Earnest was one of the pickles. He was trying to get gigs wherever he could, perform as much as he could. Because in the '70s, there was really only one way to make it in the music industry. You had to get a record deal, and only a few people in America could get you one - the A&R guy at a record label, the artists and repertoire person. Their job was to find the talent. They were the gatekeepers.

BERAS: The right A&R guy had to be at your gig, the right gig, the one where you're really doing your thing and the audience is loving you. So sometimes, you just had to get lucky. And it helped to have something to set you apart. For Earnest, the thing was he could write a pretty good song about anything - like, really anything, like soda.

JACKSON: I always did like Dr. Pepper as a kid as a soda pop, you know? And, you know, at the time, Dr. Pepper had a thing on the little bottle at 10, 2 and 4, if you remember. You got to go way back. You got to be old-school to know about this.

GONZALEZ: Dr. Pepper bottles used to have, like, this little clock logo on it with just 10, 2 and 4 o'clock on it, meaning, like, drink a Dr. Pepper every day at 10, 2 and 4 - so much soda.

JACKSON: I thought about it, and I said, oh, you could call a ditty (ph) Dr. Pepper.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

JACKSON: All right, listen. (Singing) I'm Dr. Pepper. (Vocalizing) I'm your friendly pepper-upper. (Vocalizing) Yes, I'm Dr. Pepper. (Vocalizing) I'm your friendly pepper-upper. (Vocalizing) You know I sometimes come around at 10, 2 and 4. Don't you be surprised when I knock at your door. I'm tasty, too. And I know just what to do.

That's Dr. Pepper.

GONZALEZ: Uh-huh. I'm your friendly pepper-upper. Uh-huh, uh-huh. I get it. I'm going to go ahead and say, this song is genius. It should be in a Dr. Pepper commercial. And listen; everyone we spoke to said Earnest was talented. He had something.

BERAS: And this is where Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux come in. This band hears Earnest on a famous-ish cover Earnest had recorded, and they think, he's in Baton Rouge; we're in Baton Rouge. We need to play with this guy. And this is how the band meets, and this is where "Inflation," the song, starts.

GONZALEZ: It's the '70s, right? And there was, like, this oil embargo with the Middle East. Gas prices were through the roof. People were lining up for gas. There was a big recession, and inflation is going up and up. Earnest remembers his wife would come home from the grocery store with a lot less groceries than she used to.

JACKSON: Telling me about, well, this is all I could get, so don't complain. Well, I'm not going to complain. And the children needed their cereal and their milk. Oh, my God.

BERAS: Everyone Earnest knew felt the pinch of inflation.

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

GONZALEZ: And Earnest, being Earnest, decides to write about it. He sits down in the music room at his college, Southern University and A&M College. And the only thing he knows is he wants the bass to be dominant, like a very New Orleans bass.

JACKSON: Yeah, that bass, that bass, that bass, that groove, that boom, tch, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum (ph). That puts the funk into the thing. You see?

BERAS: He's kind of, like, thinking about the bass as he writes the lyrics, finishes the song in one sitting, then heads home.

JACKSON: And when I got in my little yellow '66 Mustang...

GONZALEZ: Ooh.

JACKSON: Oh, it was canary yellow with black interior. It was cool.

BERAS: Wow.

JACKSON: And I'm on my way home, and I was just singing "Inflation."

GONZALEZ: Windows down, belting it out.

JACKSON: Ladies on the sidewalk just saying, there's Earnest.

GONZALEZ: He's always singing out of his car.

JACKSON: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Earnest decides to sing the song for the band, for Kinny, Freddie, Randy and Roy (ph). That was Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux. And they decide to record it. Kinny, the keyboardist, he was an apprentice at this pretty famous studio in New Orleans, Sea-Saint Studios. Paul McCartney recorded there, Patti LaBelle, Elvis Costello and, in the spring of 1975, Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux.

BERAS: They walk into the studio. Half the guys in one room, half in another. They pick up their instruments, and they're looking at each other through the glass, like, all right, ready? And then Earnest steps to the mic.

JACKSON: Playing (ph) "Inflation." One, two, three and boom, tch, deh, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom (ph). You see?

WALL: (Mimicking guitar sound), then, (mimicking guitar sound), in the beginning. That was me.

BERAS: This is the guitarist on the song, Freddie. Then the keyboardist comes in, Kinny.

KINNY LANDRUM: Mmm, bop, mmm, bop, mmm, bop, bop (ph) - that kind of a part.

JACKSON: So everybody's doing their thing. You know? The drummer - (imitating drums).

WALL: (Imitating guitar).

LANDRUM: (Imitating keyboards).

JACKSON: And the bass coming in - (imitating bass). (Singing) People, stop what you're doing.

It's beautiful. It's beautiful.

GONZALEZ: They are clicking. They all feel it.

JACKSON: I'm talking, like, really clicking. We knew we had it. This is it right here. This is it right here. This is it.

BERAS: They recorded the song, put away their instruments and walked away with the cassette - a demo. And then nothing - nothing happens.

GONZALEZ: Are you performing at places?

JACKSON: Oh, no, I was - I've never done that. No.

GONZALEZ: No.

JACKSON: I've never done that. No, I wouldn't do that out in the public.

GONZALEZ: Earnest says he would never play a song he wrote out in public that didn't have a copyright registration because someone could just, like, hear it and say it's theirs. And Earnest didn't know how to register a copyright for a song.

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

BERAS: And listen; getting ripped off in the music industry was a real thing that happened, especially in the '70s and especially to Black artists. In general, Black artists were getting exploited by white record-label executives. So when he performs, he's mainly doing covers.

GONZALEZ: And maybe a thing to know about Earnest's experience in the music business at this point is that he'd been burned. He had a hit once.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND HAPPINESS")

JACKSON: (Singing) Love and happiness, yeah. Something going on...

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 gets on the Billboard charts, like the official Billboard magazine charts. It peaks at No. 22 on the Hot 100, and Earnest is on the radio - a lot. He'd get in his car and hear himself singing this cover on the radio. It felt great.

GONZALEZ: But Earnest kind of got screwed with this song. There are a few ways that you can get royalties on a song that you're on, but Earnest never got any royalties for his hit cover because the deal he made basically said, you, Earnest are what is called a session musician, and session musicians get paid a flat rate for performing. Earnest got paid $150 one time. And that was it.

BERAS: The song made money, but Earnest didn't. And since then, he's been excessively cautious. So he doesn't do anything with the "Inflation" song. Never even sends the demo to anyone. Inflation eventually goes down, and Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux go their separate ways. And they start doing pretty well in the industry.

GONZALEZ: You guys all go on to have, like, pretty...

WALL: Major careers.

GONZALEZ: ...Successful, major...

WALL: Yes.

GONZALEZ: ...Careers.

WALL: Yeah. Yeah.

GONZALEZ: This is the guitarist, Freddie Wall.

WALL: I was Robert Palmer's guitar player for 12 years, if that tells you anything.

GONZALEZ: You know Robert Palmer - most famous for singing, (singing) "Simply Irresistible."

(LAUGHTER)

BERAS: Kinny Landrum, the keyboardist, he goes on to score movies, write jingles. He's on hit songs.

LANDRUM: (Singing) If I could fly, I'd pick you up, take you into the night.

Yeah, maybe you've heard this song. Anyway...

GONZALEZ: And the bass player, Randy? He is Randy Jackson - like, from the band Journey, Randy Jackson, like, shatter your Hollywood dreams, Randy Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

RANDY JACKSON: It's a no for me, dog. I don't think it was really good enough for me.

JACKSON: Oh, he's super famous. Yeah, he was on "American Idol" - one of the judges, yeah, one of the judges.

BERAS: And Earnest, the singer, he stays in Baton Rouge. He's singing, but it's not enough.

JACKSON: I had to work. I had to work. I had to because I had my children and my wife.

GONZALEZ: At first, Earnest works as a bricklayer - mixing mortar, wheeling around bricks. Then he waits tables at nice restaurants, the kind where you serve the drinks from the right, food from the left.

JACKSON: I waited tables for 33 years, Sarah. Excellent tips. I got double tips because after I served my party, then I hit them with a beautiful song.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

JACKSON: Oh, man. Yeah, I was known as the serenading waiter.

GONZALEZ: Oh, of course you were.

JACKSON: I made a very good living. I raised all my children and my family. We did pretty good at that time.

BERAS: Today, Earnest has a nice house. He's a grandpa and a great-grandpa. And he's retired. He gets Social Security and a check from the VA. So, yeah, Earnest is happy. He still sings at nursing homes, and he has shows here and there. But the A&R guy, the talent scout in the back of the room, they're not showing up because that's not really how it works these days. That's not how a record label discovers you.

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

GONZALEZ: Still is at 74 years old. And we thought we could try to get Earnest a record deal. But then we thought, there's a PLANET MONEY way to do this. So we're going to try to become a record label ourselves, just to get this one song out there because inflation is back. It's at 8% now. So "Inflation," the song, might have a shot. But we can't really do anything with this song without everyone's permission. We need everyone from the band to sign off, like, officially sign off.

BERAS: We called up all the band members to see if we could actually do this. Kinny, the keyboardist, he was the one who first told us about the cassette. He had it sent to us. He is in. He says Earnest deserves a second chance.

LANDRUM: He's one of the best singers I know.

GONZALEZ: And Freddie, the guitarist, he really wants this for Earnest.

WALL: Anything I can do to help him, I'm in. You know, it's - he deserves this.

BERAS: Freddie actually reached back out to Earnest after we got our hands on the song.

WALL: Because he wants one more shot at this, one more chance. I said, Earnest, I'll do whatever I can for you, you know, to help you achieve this.

GONZALEZ: The next Gumbo Roux member was going to be a little trickier because he's super famous - Randy Jackson.

BERAS: We tried to get in touch with Randy for months. We went through all the people you go through to get to a famous person - you know, the lawyer, the manager, the talent agency, another talent agency. But nothing. Then we found Randy's brother, Herman. He actually plays gigs with Earnest - our Earnest. So we asked Herman if he could reach out to his brother for us. And half an hour later, I was - no joke - having a bowl of gumbo when my phone rings. Randy didn't remember recording the "Inflation" song, but he remembers the band, and he remembers Earnest. And he was like, go for it; do something nice for Earnest.

GONZALEZ: Randy was in. So we now have a verbal yes from everyone. And when we tell Earnest that all his old bandmates said all this nice stuff about him, it made Earnest feel really good.

JACKSON: These guys really loved me and admired me, and they really wanted it to happen for me, Sarah.

GONZALEZ: So now? Now we can build our music empire, do what a label would do - for Earnest. In Part 2 of our series, we find out exactly what that means.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAWN LEE'S "NOLA STRUT")

GONZALEZ: 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 (laughter).

GONZALEZ: All right. We're a label. PLANET MONEY Records.

BERAS: And once there's money to be made, people start to sing a different tune. But first, the world premiere of "Inflation," the song. It made its debut in a very 1975 way. That's after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAWN LEE'S "NOLA STRUT")

GONZALEZ: OK. We were thinking about how we wanted to premiere the "Inflation" song. And at some point, Earnest told us that he really wants to be able to get in his car one day and hear himself on the radio again.

JACKSON: Oh, and like I said, if that was to happen, I would feel so good because I haven't had that feeling in quite some time.

GONZALEZ: Is there a radio station, like, somewhere where you're like, OK, that's a good goal, to try to get on that radio station...

JACKSON: Yeah, Q106.5

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

JACKSON: Yeah.

BERAS: A few months later, we go back down to Baton Rouge and pick up Earnest.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

BERAS: Get in.

JACKSON: I'm in.

(LAUGHTER)

BERAS: Ready to ride.

GONZALEZ: We are driving around Baton Rouge, and we just happened to have the station on Q106.5.

JACKSON: Everybody tunes in the Q. The Q, you know?

GONZALEZ: Wait. Let me just hear. I kind of want to hear the song.

This is a highly orchestrated car ride. We asked the station if they'd play Earnest's song, and they just texted me. We're up next. Earnest doesn't know.

BERAS: Want to turn it up a little, maybe?

DJ INCREDIBLE: We're Q106.5, Baton Rouge's No. 1 for R&B and throwbacks. This is DJ Incredible. Today we're shining a light on a song sung by one of Baton Rouge's own, Earnest Jackson, backed by Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux. The song is called "Inflation." It's 47 years old...

GONZALEZ: He's, like, looking at Erika. He's looking at me. Like, what is happening?

DJ INCREDIBLE: 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: ...Just to survive. You see, inflation and taxation has taken over our great nation. (Singing) People stop what you're doing and listen to what I have to say. Inflation is in the nation, and it's about to put us all away. I can see a depression coming on, but like most of you, I hope that I'm wrong. But the money they pay a man to live on, how long can it carry on? I said inflation, why don't you...

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: (Singing) It's bad communication.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: (singing) ...Inflation. Why don't you get out the nation? Taxation...

BERAS: Earnest never really said much.

JACKSON: That really got to me. That really got to me.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: (Singing) ...'Cause inflation is in the nation, and it's about to put us all away. I said inflation...

GONZALEZ: We actually have a video of the moment that Earnest hears "Inflation" song on the radio for the first time. You honestly - you have to watch it. So go to our Instagram, @planetmoney. We're also on TikTok, Facebook, Twitter - @planetmoney.

BERAS: Today's show was produced by James Sneed with help from Emma Peaslee and Dave Blanchard. Sam Yellowhorse Kesler helped fact check. It was mastered by James Willetts. Robert Smith consulted on this episode, and Jess Jiang edited it.

GONZALEZ: The clip you heard of 14-year-old Earnest singing? Jimmy Wells (ph) is the composer on the song.

BERAS: Many thanks to Dan Bobkoff, Jacob Ganz, Hazel Cills, Devin Mellor and Alex Goldmark. Also Arthur Roose (ph), Carmen Jackson, Vicki Namen (ph) and Kevin Cassini (ph). I'm Erika Beras.

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION")

SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX: (singing) ...Inflation. Why don't you get out the nation? Falling relation, bad communication.

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