The Moral of Sixto Rodriguez

Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out." 
- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

In the late 1960s, Sixto Rodriguez was an aspiring young folk singer who started to emerge onto the music scene in Detroit, Michigan. He could be found playing to small crowds in the coffee houses and smoke-filled bars that dotted the rundown Detroit neighborhoods of the period. He had an original sound and an authentic voice, both of which came from his heart and the depths of his soul. Sixto was discovered by music producers who thought he would be the next Bob Dylan. They quickly signed him to the label with a two-album deal.

To the music producers’ dismay, Rodriguez’s albums were a total bust and, disappointingly, he only sold a few of each. Rodriguez was soon Sixto Rodriguez Performing in Zurich in March, 2014 (Source: Google Images)forgotten and returned to his obscure life as a laborer working odd jobs. Eventually the music label that produced his recordings went out of business. End of story? Absolutely not! This is just the beginning of his amazing tale.

As the story goes, in the early 1970s a woman who bought Rodriguez’s albums traveled to South Africa to visit her boyfriend at the time, bringing the albums along with her. Her boyfriend loved the music, and he shared it with his friends.  Soon bootlegged copies were distributed to young South Africans who were eager to hear an inspirational message during Apartheid. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, local record companies were selling his work and he was becoming a musical icon throughout South Africa and places such as Australia and New Zealand. South Africa alone, with a population of 40 million people at the time, sold a half million copies of his work.

In the documentary that profiles this amazing story, “In Search of the Sugar Man,” it was said that during the ‘70s everyone in South Africa had at least three albums — “Abbey Road” by The Beatles, The Moral of Sixto RodriguezBridge Over Troubled Waters” by Simon and Garfunkel and one of Rodriguez’s albums. In this part of the world, Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis Presley. Rodriguez’s music was credited as the inspiration behind young South Africans bringing an end to Apartheid.

South African super fans knew little about Rodriguez. False rumors started to surface that Rodriguez had committed suicide onstage during one of his previous performances. During the oppression and isolation of Apartheid, South Africans were cut off from the outside world. Then, as the Internet revolution began in the mid-1990s, a local South African music enthusiast started to explore information about his or her rock idol. They created a website that garnered the attention of one of Rodriguez’s daughters, who was able to inform her father’s fans that he was very much alive and well.

Rodriguez, who believed that his music was a commercial failure and had lived a very modest and unassuming life as a construction laborer in downtown Detroit, was shocked to learn about his huge fan base a world away. Soon thereafter, Rodriguez made several trips to Australia and South Africa, playing to sold-out crowds who were very appreciative of finally seeing and experiencing their hero at a live concert.

According to Todd Henry in his book “Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day”, the moral of Sixto Rodriguez is to find your voice and do your best work each day. Approach our work like CraftsmenWe may never know how our work impacts the people with whom we interact. As a career consultant, I partner closely with my clients to help them find a way to make their careers meaningful. We do not need to be famous or be captains of an industry to have a positive impact on other people’s lives.

We need to approach our work like craftsmenbe present, be authentic and bring a level of passion to each project and task. You may never know how your message or personal example may shape and influence your peers, your teammates or your clients. Rodriguez had no way of knowing that his limited body of work would ultimately inspire a generation that was a world away to create a positive change in our world’s history. Only by giving your work everything you have each day can you achieve professional and individual success. Who knows whose world you might change in the process?


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