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.

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