In the 1970s, Detroit native, Rodriguez, was not a household name in The United States. He was, however, more famous than Elvis in South Africa. Rodriguez wouldn’t know about any of that fame until the late 1990s. When I was in high school, my history teacher introduced my class to Rodriguez and his incredible story through the 2012 documentary; “Searching for Sugar Man”, and ever since then I’ve been obsessed.
Rodriguez wrote music that was ahead of his time. He put his politically and emotionally charged lyrics to music that was inspired by Detroit’s Motown sound, and his Mexican heritage. Producers, like Mike Theodore and Clarance Avant who had worked with some of rock’s greatest hits, loved him, and claimed that Bob Dylan was the only songwriter of the time who was comparable to him. He sold less than 100 copies of his album in the US though, and he was dropped by his label, Sussex.
The tale of how Rodriguez became a success in South Africa is wild, and almost seems completely made up. Legend has it that an American girl traveled to South Africa to visit her boyfriend, and brought Rodriguez’s album “Cold Fact” with her. Her boyfriend and his friends ended up loving the album, but since this was during the Apartheid and the South African government was controlling the media, they couldn’t buy the record anywhere. So they started creating bootleg copies, and sharing his music with the rest of the country. Rodriguez’s songs actually became the anthems of revolution, and he became a rebel icon. His fans in South Africa knew nothing about him though. They didn’t even know where in the United States he was located.
A few years down the line, different newspapers were publishing stories about Rodriguez committing suicide on stage during his final concert. One paper claimed he’d lit himself on fire. Another claimed he’d shot himself. His fans were devastated. So Stephen Segerman, a record store owner, and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, a music journalist set off on this journey to find out how Rodriguez died, and come to find that he’s still alive and living in Detroit.
Over the weekend I was lucky enough to see Rodriguez live at The Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac, MI and it was an amazing show! Rodriguez is now 74 years old, and he lights up the stage with his positivity, talent, and presence. He played songs off both of his albums, and beautifully covered hits by The Doors, and Jefferson Airplane. I found myself smiling the entire time because the love that was exchanged from the audience, to Rodriguez, and back was truly magical. He writes and performs some of the most beautiful songs, so be sure to check him out!!