Born in 1942 in Detroit into a Mexican immigrant community, Rodriguez picked up his first guitar at age 16 and began to play and write songs.
They were protest songs, whose lyrics were sometimes compared to those of Dylan and Cohen. Rodriguez produced two albums of his voice and acoustic guitar backed up by horns and strings: Cold Fact in 1970, and Coming From Reality in 1971.
The albums went nowhere, and Rodriguez quit making music, living instead in anonymity, doing construction and demolition in Detroit.
Unbeknownst to him, an Australian label picked up his albums and a compilation album of his songs went platinum in Australia. He toured there in 1979 and 1981 before returning to anonymity in Detroit, where he continued doing demolition, and also earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
No one knows how, but his records traveled in bootleg form to South Africa somewhere around 1991, when the struggle against apartheid was gearing up for its final battles.
“Rodriguez became a mythical protest hero, bigger than Elvis and joining the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones in the music collections of every musically literate Cape Town resident.” (HufPo)
“The effect of the album on national service conscripts under the apartheid regime is frequently compared to that of Jimi Hendrix or the Doors on US servicemen in Vietnam.” (The Guardian)
According to NPR (National Public Radio), it was a line from the song This is not a Song, it’s an Outburst (or The Establishment’s Blues) that galvanized South African apartheid protest:
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact
But no one knew anything about him, or cared much who he was, because he was dead.
Except he wasn’t. He had not killed himself onstage, or died of an overdose. He was not serving a life term for murdering his girlfriend. He was doing demolition in Detroit, completely unaware of his role in South Africa.
Two intrepid South African fans, Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew decided to investigate what had happened to the mysterious rocker.
While initially frustrated by a dearth of leads, they eventually traced his roots to 1970s Detroit, and almost out of nowhere Rodriguez’ daughter contacted them: she had stumbled across a South African website on which she read about her father’s fame.
“Do you really want to know about my father?” she mailed them.
Three South African tours followed, proving beyond doubt that he was not dead.
“It was the best story I’ve ever heard in my life,” Sewdish film director Malik Bendjelloul told The Huffington Post after the screening of his documentary on Rodriguez’ life which came out on July 26, 2012.
“I was almost afraid to listen to the music, because I thought, ‘it can’t be as good as they all say.’ But it was.”
The documentary is entitled ‘Searching for Sugar Man’, after Rodriguez’ best-known track:
Sugar man you’re the answer
That makes my questions disappear
What if you changed the world and didn’t know it?