Unknown Legend: The Search for Rodriguez
by Cayetano Garza Jr.
In 1967 an enigmatic Mexican-American folk singer named Rodriguez put out his first single “I’ll Slip Away” on a small label called Impact. Three years later he would sign to Sussex Records, an offshoot of a label called Buddah Records, and released two albums – Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming from Reality in 1971.
Whether due to lack of airplay, a lack of promotion, or the tastes of the record industry at the time, the albums did not do well financially in the domestic market and Sussex would drop Rodriguez very shortly after releasing his work. Sussex itself would shutter in 1975. Rodriguez would subsequently fade into obscurity, unknown but to the most eclectic of collectors.
Although Rodriguez remained unknown in the United States, overseas in countries like Australia, Botswana, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe, his music was becoming very well known. By the mid-70’s his music enjoyed significant airplay in that part of the world.
When imported copies of his albums became sold out, an Australian label bought the rights to publishing in Australia and began releasing his work as a compilation featuring several unreleased tracks from 1973 recording sessions originally intended for an unreleased third album. The title of the compilation was At His Best.
At His Best went platinum in South Africa, where his music was compared to Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. At the height of Apartheid, South Africans related to Rodriguez’ anti-establishment protest songs and they served as anthems for many in the growing Anti-Apartheid movement.
Rodriguez was considered a super star in South Africa, yet nothing was known of the artist himself, where he was from or what had become of him. He became the stuff of legend as rumors began to circulate that he had actually committed suicide, some went so far as to say he did it during a performance!
The 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man is a the story of two South African fans and their journey to find out what really happened to Rodriguez. The documentary soundtrack features a compilation of Rodriguez tracks from both studio albums as well as the three unreleased tracks from the failed third album. The film is worth watching not only for the unusual story it tells, but also for its stunning cinematic direction that gives us beautiful views of South Africa and inner-city America.
Directed by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, Searching for Sugar Man debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won several awards over the years including an Academy Award in 2013 for Best Documentary Feature.