In the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of country music's most successful male artists, recording a string of hit songs, such as "You Always Come Back to Hurting Me," "Desperado," "Down on the Rio Grande" and "Foolin'." He has recorded six No. 1 country hits in his career.
Growing up in Sabinal, Rodriguez was a good student in school and an altar boy for his church. He was also the captain of his junior high school football team. When Rodriguez was 16 years old, his father died of cancer, and his older brother, Andres, died in an automobile accident the following year. The two incidents had an effect on Rodriguez and he became a troubled teen. In 1969, at age 18, Rodriguez ended up in jail. He sang frequently in his cell and was overheard by Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson, who was very impressed and told promoter "Happy" Shahan about him. (The common story told is that he was arrested after he and some friends were caught stealing and barbecuing a goat, although Jackson would later state that Rodriguez was in jail simply for an unpaid fine.)
Shahan then hired Johnny to perform at his local tourist attraction called the Alamo Village. During one of his sets in 1971, he came to the attention of country singers Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare, who encouraged the young singer to go to Nashville, Tennessee.
The 21-year-old singer arrived in Nashville with only a guitar in his hand and $14 in his pocket. Fortunately, Hall soon found work for Rodriguez fronting his band, as well as writing songs.
Less than one year later, Hall personally took Rodriguez to the heads of Mercury Records' Nashville division to land him an audition with the record label. After performing the songs "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "If I Left It Up to You," he was offered a contract with Mercury. He signed and began recording in their Nashville studio.
After signing with Mercury, Rodriguez was soon on the way to becoming famous. His first single to be released for Mercury was 1972's "Pass Me By." This recording was a big success, going to No. 9 on the Hot Country Songs list that year, and making him a country star overnight. Rodriguez became the first well-known American of Mexican descent as a country singer. (Freddy Fender achieved fame a few years later, in 1975.)