His was an urban legend that spread from the dingy riverside bars of Detroit to the other side of the globe, where his songs became anthems for the anti-apartheid people of South Africa.
Yet, in his own country he was virtually unknown, this blue-collar folk singer known only as Rodriguez. Celebrated Motor City producers Dennis Coffey (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes) and Mike Theodore had high hopes for the gifted singer-songwriter when they discovered him in a smoky wharf district dive and signed him to a recording contract in 1969.
But when his debut album of topical funk-folk songs, 1970's “Cold Fact,” went nowhere sales-wise, and the '71 follow-up “Coming From Reality” did the same, Rodriguez was dropped from his record label — two weeks before Christmas — and he just seemed to disappear.
Later there were rumors of an onstage suicide, by self-immolation or a bullet to the head, depending who was telling the story.
Meanwhile, a bootleg tape of his music made its way around the world to pre-Nelson Mandela South Africa, where its Dylan-esque musical messages (“The Establishment Blues,” “Can't Get Away,” “Inner City Blues”) became rallying cries for the emerging liberal African youth. A government ban on his music didn't stop Rodriguez from becoming a household name.
Now, director Malik Bendjelloul's Oscar-nominated documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” just released on DVD and Blu-ray, is bringing the former construction/demolition worker the fame he deserves at home — 40 years overdue.
And he is in demand.
“Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film at Sundance,” Rodriguez said last week. “Since then they've backed it up with, uh, I did the David Letterman show and they picked it up with a 25-piece orchestra. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the tab for that. And I just did the Jay Leno show with a 20-piece orchestra on Friday, this past Friday.”
The film was released in July 2012, and so was the soundtrack, which is composed of songs from both of his albums, including the anti-drug ballad “Sugar Man,” from which the record derives its title. It is Rodriguez's first album to appear on the Billboard Top 100 chart and it spent 11 weeks on the Top New Artist Heatseekers chart, peaking at No. 1.
Not bad for a 70-year-old hard laborer who went back to demolition and renovation of buildings and houses, which he's worked at for most of the last 40 years. He's even gotten involved in Detroit politics at different times, actually running for mayor and city council (unsuccessfully) and attending protests and rallies when the cause involved the city's working class and poverty-stricken.
“The electoral process is a mechanism for change, I feel,” Rodriguez said. “And there are elections every two years. Yes, I describe myself as a musical-political and social issues bother me. They've gotta fix what's wrong. You know, I'm a working mentality, kind of. If it's broken, find out what's wrong, fix this thing, you know? So that kind of approach, when you hear politics, they can't get beyond a certain point. Some of it is political stagnation in America, and in other countries. And we all have a history, so I get involved and I'm active.”