There’s no blueprint for making it in music, according to Rodriguez, whose own circuitous floor plans built a legacy he never knew he had and an inspiring story told in the critically acclaimed documentary film Searching for Sugar Man.
After decades in obscurity, Rodriguez has become, finally, a bona fide full-time musician and, quite accidentally, an international man of mystery.
Armed with a catalog of insightful songs and backing of members of the legendary Funk Brothers, Rodriguez cut his first and defining LP, Cold Fact, in the shadows of late ’60s Motown. There it stayed until miraculously making its way to South Africa, where anti-Apartheid activists picked up the pristinely produced folk tunes laced with socio-political commentary.
He captivated a nation, but had already dropped his music career and returned to his working-class roots unaware of his impact until the late ’90s.
The film chronicling his peculiar journey has exposed a much wider audience to his modest collection of compositions recorded some 40 years ago and reinvigorated a quiet Rodriguez. He is hitting the road for several series of tour dates stateside and overseas this fall.
“It’s always a new adventure every time you go out there,” said Rodriguez via phone from his hometown Detroit.
His most recent performance in the Motor City Saturday drew such high-profile show goers as Kid Rock and film crews from CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Donning dark glasses and dressed in black attire, Rodriguez delivers songs in the vein of early Bob Dylan ripe with sharp observations about social justice, hard times and longing for love.
In noteworthy contrast, he also likes to serve up standards like Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and The Flamingos’ doo wop standard “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
“Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. They’re American composers and I treat [their music] with that kind of reverence,” Rodriguez said. From 1940s big band to early rock n roll, the young Mexican-American soaked in a changing sea of sounds before picking up a guitar himself. “All these things were in the backdrop, so you couldn’t help it.
“I focused on the sounds of music,” and folk music in particular, he said, primarily for the social issues they brought to light.
“Knowledge by itself is nothing. It’s what you do with that knowledge,” Rodriguez said. “So I wanted to speak out.”
Songs like “Inner City Blues” from Cold Fact and “Cause” from sophomore effort Coming From Reality, both reissued by Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records in 2008 and ’09, offer visual-heavy vignettes of lesser-known lives (those songs are also available on the Waiting For Sugar Man Soundtrack).
No wonder they resonated in an African nation decades deep in crippling segregation and social unrest. A wonder that a humble visionary and skilled songwriter like Rodriguez, making a living as a construction worker in Detroit, had no idea.
He’s continued making music through the years, none of which has been recorded or released. The attention created by Sugar Man could certainly change that and perhaps land him in that class of American composers he holds so dear.
For now, Rodriguez is embracing his new opportunity with the approach of the working-class man and musician he’s always been.
“One way musicians can make it is through live performance and that’s what is going to be a focus for me.”