Rockin’ With Rodriguez

Not long ago, I was backstage at a show discussing strategies for a successful music career with the stage crew and opening band. The crucial approach, we agreed, is: always have your bag packed, always be ready. Other observations and conjecture ranged from the amorphous to specific rules of thumb (if you have a manager, fire him; never, never, join a husband-and-wife band; if two members get married, quit).

Because we were talking about success in today’s music industry, artistic integrity was so far down the list it could be ignored. My take-away was that, more often than not, any kind of integrity can be a stumbling block. For proof, look no further than the (mismanaged) careers of ‘70s-era minority folk-soul-blues singer/songwriters such as Washington D.C.’s Leon Huff, Chicago’s Terry Callier or even California’s Bill Withers (who actually achieved some success, but became so disillusioned in the process that he walked away from the industry in disgust ).

Add to this list one Sixto Rodriquez from Detroit — the extra irony being that instead of continuing to play music and have his message ignored, he quit, then success happened.

You might’ve known a little about the Rodriguez story before he was billed as a headliner at this year’s Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival (Sept. 21–22). His is a good story and deserves telling. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez (aka Rodriguez, Rod Riguez or Jesus Rodriguez) is a politically conscious, Hispanic, Detroit native. In the world of 1970 American pop music, each of these crucial “ingredients” to his sound added another degree of difficulty to any kind of recognition. His first album, 1970’s “Cold Fact, was produced by Motown guitarist Dennis “Ball of Confusion” Coffey and keyboardist Mike Theodore. To give a little context, around the same time, this production team created the warpy, otherworldly funk of Rare Earth’s “(I Just Want to) Celebrate” and “I’m Losing You.

Coffey and Theodore’s “psychedelic lite” touches and solid big-picture funkiness shot a cosmic perspective into Rodriguez’s “itchy footed” lyrics about life in the ghetto (“Gun sales are soaring/Housewives find life boring/Divorce the only answer/Smoking causes cancer”). Even by current standards and most estimation, the album is a masterpiece. And despite his idiosyncrasies (such as playing an entire label showcase set with his back to the audience), Rodriguez seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

The industry’s inability to market (read: pigeonhole) such a diverse commodity, left Roderiguez’s career (along with Huff’s, Callier’s and even, to a degree, Withers’) floundering. Another album, “Coming from Reality” was released in 1972, and promptly disappeared, followed into oblivion shortly after by the Sussex label itself. From the early ’70s to the late ’90s, Rodriguez was off music’s radar, apart from two small tours in Australia (where he was popular) in 1979 and 1981. For the remainder of those 20 years, Rodriguez worked as a carpenter in Detroit, raised his family and even once ran for public office on an independent ticket.

Meanwhile over in South Africa, and totally unbeknown to the artist, an entire generation had been raised on Rodriguez’s music. The “Cold Fact” album had been embraced not just by the still-segregated black population but also became an enormous inspiration to a generation of South Africa’s white youth caught up in the apartheid-era protests and army draft. These baby boomers never let go of Rodriguez’s music, generating decades of heavy airplay, but there were no incumbent sales because the discs, the label and, as far as anyone knew, Rodriguez himself no longer existed.

Enter, finally, the Internet.

Rodriguez’s oldest daughter discovered his fame in South Africa in 1998. Surprised, he organized a couple of successful tours there. His audiences were just as surprised and pleased to see him. Turns out, many had bought into the urban legend that he had committed suicide by self-immolation onstage.

In 2002, his music became available in South Africa and Sweden (another Rodriguez bastion) and he spent the decade slowly reintroducing himself to the world market while his now-available tunes provided lysergic-funk samples to big-name DJs such as the UK’s David Holmes. This hard-won exposure paid off, when, in 2009, the visionary West Coast reissue label Light in the Attic made both Rodriguez albums available in the states.

This set the stage for the 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” The film, by Swedish enthusiast Malik Bendjelloul, framed the whole “Sugar Man” story as a kind of mystery, and it clicked with Sundance audiences just a week before taking February’s True/False Film Fest by storm.

Because the film — and its excellent soundtrack — were put into general release just a month or so ago, much has been written about Rodriguez — the man and legend — but judging from online videos, the passion and integrity of his performances remains unadulterated by all the praise. The best thing about his show at Roots N Blues is that it will be about the music — not about him or his struggles or the movie, on which so many recent interviews have focused. It’ll be just him and his contemporaries in front of the best music crowd this country offers, bar none. Expect the love, brother.

Watch the “Searching for Sugar Man” trailer here: