Rodriguez: The rock icon who didn't know it

A Detroit musician living in poverty didn't know that in South Africa, he was more popular than the Beatles

(CBS News) He was more popular than Elvis, but humble 70s singer-songwriter Rodriguez didn't know about his fame in South Africa for 40 years. Bob Simon tells the story of how Rodriguez went from obscurity to stardom, decades after he cut his first album.


The following is a script from "Rodriguez" which aired on Oct. 7, 2012. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Michael Gavshon, producer.

Like so many musicians before him, the singer songwriter named Rodriguez came from nowhere. He was born poor in Detroit, spent his life poor in Detroit. In the late 60s, he cut a couple of records. They got great reviews but went nowhere. What he didn't know, what no one in America knew, was that half way around the world in South Africa, he was more popular than Elvis or the Beatles. He'd never been there. No one there knew anything about him. Even when word spread that he had died, his records continued to sell.

Then, four years ago, a young Swedish filmmaker heard about Rodriguez -- decided to shoot a documentary about him. The film, now captivating audiences across the country, is being talked about as a possible candidate for an Academy Award. It's released by Sony Pictures Classics and called "Searching for Sugar Man."

The film shows Rodriguez's old neighborhood in downtown Detroit and the smoky bar where, back in the late 60s, he was discovered by Dennis Coffey, a legendary Motown producer.

Dennis Coffey: We thought he was like the inner city poet. You know, putting his poems to music of what he saw. And it was definitely a very gritty look at what he saw on the streets of Detroit. The only writer that I had heard of at that time period was maybe Bob Dylan, that was writing that well.

Coffey co-produced his first album, "Cold Fact." Critics liked it, but it bombed. Steve Rowland was responsible for his second. It did no better.

Steve Rowland: Nobody in America had even heard of him. Nobody... nobody even was interested in listening to him. How can that be? How can that be?

And how could it be that no one in America knew that Rodriguez had become an icon in South Africa? Steve Segerman owns a record store in Cape Town.

Steve Segerman: To many of us South Africans he was the soundtrack to our lives. If you walked into a random white, liberal, middle-class household that had a turntable and a pile of pop records and you would always see "Cold Fact" by Rodriguez. To us, it was one of the most famous records of all time.

It was the 1970s and under apartheid political repression was at its height. Rodriguez's lyrics resonated with people who'd had it with the system.

[Music from "Establishment Blues"]

The mayor hides the crime rate, councilwoman hesitates
Public gets irate, but forgets the vote date
This system's gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that's a concrete cold fact.

Steve Segerman: We didn't know what the word anti-establishment was until it cropped up on a Rodriguez song. And then we found out it's OK to protest against your society, to be angry with your society.

South Africans were buying half a million of his records and were astonished to learn that no one else in the world had ever heard of him. He was the ultimate enigma.

Steve Segerman: Then we found out that he had committed suicide. He set himself alight on stage and burnt to death in front of the audience. It was probably the most grotesque suicide in rock history.

But there was no proof. So record store owner Segerman and his friends started investigating. Twenty-five years after hearing those records, they spotted the word Dearborn in one of his songs. Dearborn is near Detroit. And as the film shows, that's where they found Rodriguez's house. And, there he was very much alive. His neighbors knew him as an odd character who walked around with a guitar.

Dan DiMaggio: He was this wandering spirit around, around the city. You know, Detroit's got its share of burned out desolate areas and I would occasionally see him. I thought he was just a, I-- just not much more than a kind of a homeless person.

But he wasn't homeless. He was the son of an immigrant worker from Mexico. He'd lived in this house with a wood burning stove for 40 years. And all this time, he had been working as a day laborer; demolition, roofing, heavy construction. He also managed to get a degree in philosophy.

Rodriguez didn't know his records had been selling like wildfire in South Africa. He'd never seen a penny.

Then, in 1998, his fans invited him to tour South Africa. He and his three daughters had no idea limos would be waiting for them at the airport. Regan is his youngest daughter.

Regan Rodriguez: I only assumed the limousines were for some dignitary or celebrity, someone that we should stay out of the way of. But instead they were for my father.

Regan said she expected 20, maybe 30 people to show up at his concert. There were 5,000. And when Rodriguez stepped out onto the stage, they wouldn't let him start singing not for 10 minutes.

Regan Rodriguez: And for them to see him, when they thought he had died, it was like they had a chance to see some type of resurrection.

[Rodriguez "Thanks for keeping me alive!"]

The Beatles and the Stones had played to crazed houses too. But to these people, Rodriguez was like Lazarus. He had risen from the dead. The concert wasn't just a success. It was a miracle.

Regan Rodriguez: Looking out in the crowd, people were singing every note, every song, every word.

In South Africa, Rodriguez finally got the adulation he'd never received at home. But when he got home, to Detroit, it was as if none of it had ever happened. He went back to doing what he'd been doing all his life. When we met him in September, he was unlike any rock star we'd ever met; humble, unassuming, OK with working for a living.

Bob Simon: When both of your records bombed commercially, how shaken were you?

Rodriguez: Oh, I was j-- Bob Simon, I was too disappointed to be disappointed.

Bob Simon: People in South Africa said that your music was the soundtrack of their youth.

Rodriguez: Oh, yeah. Ah, well-- the-- well, that was-- obviously, it-- they picked up on my stuff, yeah, yeah.

Bob Simon: They "picked up" on your stuff. Come on, it's a lot more than that.

Rodriguez: Geez, listen to this guy. Go ahead, I'm listening.

Bob Simon: I mean, that's a remarkable thing to say, that your music was the soundtrack of their youth--

Rodriguez: Oh, I-- it's quite an honor that they picked my stuff up, yeah. I owe South Africa, for sure.

And what about all those years of backbreaking labor?

Bob Simon: Was that hard on you?

Rodriguez: Did-- well, physically it's hard, but it's-- there's no shame in hard work.

Bob Simon: You say there's no shame in hard work.

Rodriguez: Yes, sir.

Bob Simon: I think you also said there's no shame in being poor.

Rodriguez: That's right. And poor doesn't mean dirty and poor doesn't mean stupid and poor does not mean mean.

Poverty and dignity. That was the end of his story. Except it wasn't. Another twist of fate was coming his way. First time Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul was travelling around the world looking for a story to film. When he got to Cape Town, he heard about Rodriguez.

Malik Bendjelloul: This might be one of the best stories I ever heard. It was like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, or something like that. I never heard a story in my life that was so close to one of those classic fairytales, and had such a wonderful soundtrack, too. You know, it was just-- I was just ah -- I just fell in love with this story.

There is love. And then there's money. Malik didn't have much of the latter. But that wasn't going to stop him.

Malik Bendjelloul: I used this one-- this-- the--iPhone 4. Which I bought this $1.00 app, this Super 8 app, and it looked almost the same. I mean, not exactly, but good enough. And a lot of stuff was filmed with this.

Bob Simon: You shot a film with that?

Malik Bendjelloul: Yeah.

He then edited the film himself, composed the sound track himself, drew the animation himself. And then, after four years, he gave up.

Malik Bendjelloul: I was 90% finished. I realized, I can't continue, because I need food. My clothes had, like, holes under the arms, and I couldn't afford to buy new ones. I needed work.

Bob Simon: While you were making a film about a poor man, you became poor?

Malik Bendjelloul: I became one myself. I did, yeah. I did, that's true.

Eventually, he found producers who submitted his unfinished film to the Sundance film festival in Utah. They not only accepted it, they decided to open the festival with it. Since hitting the theaters, it has become something of a phenomenon. And Rodriguez has been resurrected... once again. One of his first miraculous appearances: the David Letterman show.

And now: a sold-out tour across America. Here he is at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. It was as if he'd never left the stage.

[Rodriguez: I love when they scream. (Audience laughs) Is there anybody here from Detroit? (Applause) My deepest condolences! (Audience laughs)]

He didn't mean it, of course. And his real homecoming happened at the kind of Detroit joint which was in his genes.

[Rodriguez: Hey youngbloods!

Ryan: I want to say "hello" man.

Charlie: You're very inspiring.

Rodriguez: What's your name?

Charlie: Charlie.

Woman: I'm so excited to see you.

Man: Awesome to meet you man. Thrilling. Yes!

Female Voice: ...a picture too--

Rodriguez: You better hurry.

Female Voice: --because we're so excited.

Rodriguez: Me too.]

And he'd been in their midst all the time. But it took 40 years for them to discover who he really was.

Rodriguez is 70 now and needs a little help walking. He can barely see. The world can see and hear him today as the great songwriter he's always been. But there's still one abiding mystery.

Bob Simon: Why do you think it's taken 40 years?

Rodriguez: Well, I just wasn't meant to be so lucky then, you know. I think maybe that's it.

Bob Simon: You know, when you left here before the film was made, you were Rodriguez living in downtown Detroit. Now you're "Rodriguez superstar."

Rodriguez: Oh.

Bob Simon: It has a ring to it, "Rodriguez superstar."

Rodriguez: Oh, no. This-- well, that's nice of you to say that. It's superlatives they use. But-- I-- we're havin' a good year, of course.

A good year and, at last, some money.

Regan Rodriguez: He's a giving person with money. He's not a selfish person. And in fact, I think it could benefit him in a way of just being able to give it away. That alone will make him feel so good.

Bob Simon: You don't think he's gonna go out there and buy a Ferrari?

Regan Rodriguez: I don't see him buying a Ferrari. I think-- if anything, I'm hoping he'll get a new pair of glasses.

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    Bob Simon is among a handful of elite journalists who have covered most major overseas conflicts and news stories from the late sixties to the present. He has contributed to 60 Minutes since 1996.

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