“Thanks for keeping me alive.”
These are words spoken by Sixto Rodriguez at his sold-out concert in South Africa that took place in March 1998. Before this, Rodriguez had been living a quiet life in Detroit, totally unaware of his fanbase of millions in South Africa. Throughout the country, Rodriguez was a household name – yet he had no idea, and neither did anyone in his home country, the United States. In fact, no one in the US had even heard of him.
‘Searching For Sugar Man’ is the 2012, Oscar-winning story of the musician’s inadvertent rise to fame and the search for the real Rodriguez, featuring some of the first interviews with the musician. The man has a calming presence, quietly confident with little to say but all of it seeming to be of great importance. After the unsuccessful releases of his two albums, Rodriguez went back to work in manual labour. In the film, we see some beautiful shots of him walking across his hometown, Detroit, to the soundtrack of his amazing music. The film succeeds beautifully in its search for Sugar Man and details the many stories of Rodriguez’s life.
Songs that are not on Spotify by Rodriguez that I think are also worth listening to:
The Story of South Africa
Rodriguez’s debut album ‘Cold Fact’ (1970) became one of the biggest albums in South Africa, but his identity was completely unknown. It was widely believed that the singer-songwriter had died: there existed various rumours of his onstage suicide, which included setting himself on fire, or shooting himself mid-set.
It is a mystery how the first copy of ‘Cold Fact’ made its way into South Africa, but the most prolific rumour is that an American girl brought a copy over whilst visiting. Soon, all her friends had copied it, passed it on, and it spread very quickly.
Rodriguez’s rise to fame in South Africa came during the height of apartheid, which took place between 1948 and 1994, and eventually ended with Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first black president. In the apartheid-stricken 1970s, South Africa was an extremely conservative and censored country with a ‘closed door’ system of media denying access to mainstream television or media from other countries. For this reason, many young South Africans, despite believing apartheid was wrong, had no idea that other countries in the world were in agreement and so felt entirely powerless to change it. However, much of this feeling was changed by the introduction of Rodriguez’s music; almost as if by divine intervention, this artist who had absolutely no fame or recognition anywhere else in the world appeared with his gritty, anti-establishment music in the place where the youth needed it the most.
For many South Africans growing up in the 70s and 80s, Rodriguez was part of the “soundtrack to our lives”, and a classic household name you’d find in record collections alongside the Beatles and Elvis. However, he was not only a household name, but the inspiration for a musically-led movement against apartheid. Rodriguez’s track ‘This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues’ (mostly known as ‘The Establishment Blues’) opened up anti-establishment ideas to many young South African citizens, particularly those from an Afrikaans background who opposed apartheid but lacked the tools or vocabulary to do anything about it. One South African man interviewed in the film who grew up listening to Rodriguez said that his “lyrics set us free”, and gave people permission to free their minds – “every revolution needs an anthem.”
Lots of rebellious and revolutionary music emerged as a result of Rodriguez’s music and influence. Koos Kombuis, Willem Möller and Johannes Kerkoriel were all musicians inspired by Rodriguez. Some of them were members of a band called Big Sky, which became iconic of Afrikaans music revolution. They all listened to Rodriguez. Speaking of Rodriguez’s music, they stated that “it had an enormous impact.” The band was up-and-coming in the 70s and 80s, but released their debut album in 1990, right at the time that negotiations to end apartheid began. The group’s music is considered an integral soundtrack to this positive revolution.
The Story of Rodriguez
Detroit, Michigan 1968: Dennis Coffrey of Sussex Records went to watch Rodriguez play live after learning about his work. The singer and guitarist played with his back to the audience, facing the wall due to nerves. Coffrey later said that Bob Dylan was the only writer at the time writing that well, and found the way Rodriguez strummed and batted the guitar interesting, as well as his unusual voice. Rodriguez was signed by the label and began working on his first album, ‘Cold Fact’, but remained wrapped up in the gritty lifestyle of Detroit in the 70s, meeting producers on street corners. His music reflected the toughness and poverty he experienced; it was gritty, like his neighbourhood.
‘Cold Fact’ was released in 1970 but described as a “flop”; the same was true for his second album ‘Coming From Reality’ (1971). The producers who worked with Rodriguez still question why he didn’t make it at the time.
Rodriguez’s daughter, Regan Rodriguez, said in ‘Searching For Sugar Man’ that her father often advocated for people who didn’t have a voice. In particular, he brought his children on marches and supported the working class which he and his family belonged to. Eva Rodriguez, another of Rodriguez’s daughters, stated that “just because people are poor, it doesn’t mean their souls aren’t rich.” She explained that as well as a political education, her father educated his children in the arts, taking them to museums and concerts.
Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records and former chairman of Motown Music, states in the documentary that “Bob Dylan was mild [compared] to this guy,” speaking of Rodriguez. Avant was surprised that records did not sell in America, but he put it largely down to the fact that Rodriguez’s name is clearly Latin, and Latin music was unpopular at the time in the States. Rodriguez and his American record-label counterparts had no idea that the artist was popular in South Africa, and there were no attempts to contact him due to the widespread rumours of his death.
The Story of the Search
South African fan Craig Bartholomew discovered that Rodriguez was completely unknown in America and that there was no information anywhere to be found about the identity of the musician. Bartholomew attempted to track down Rodriguez, spurred on by the challenge of the complete blanket of anonymity. He listened to the lyrics on the album and visited the places Rodriguez mentioned. Eventually, he got in touch with Mike Theodore of Sussex Records. After questioning Theodore and revealing that he had been selling records for 25 years in South Africa, Bartholomew eventually asked him to confirm rumours of the singer’s death. Theodore revealed that he had in fact not died and was still living in Detroit.
The Story of Fame
Rodriguez was tracked down by Craig Bartholomew and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, whose nickname was coined as a reference to Rodriguez’s ‘Sugar Man’. In 1998, Rodriguez came to South Africa with his children to perform his music to an arena-sized audience, where Sugar told him he was more famous and popular than Elvis. For the audience, it was as if Elvis had come back from the dead and they spent five to ten minutes screaming at his first performance. All those interviewed in the documentary about this stated that there was a serenity on Rodriguez’s face, rather than the shock that might be expected due to his newfound fame.
“South Africa made me feel like more than a prince.”
Rodriguez on his treatment by South Africans
Rodriguez played six sold-out shows in South Africa that same year, and eventually played over 30 concerts in the country. He gave away most of his profits, and ended up living in the same house for over forty years.
It was as if Rodriguez’s two lives had merged. His famous-musician life came to fruition years later, and he was able to perform and feel at home in that, whilst still living in the same small house in Detroit. Later, Rodriguez ended up with a half South-African grandchild as a result of his daughter meeting her partner from the country she had visited with her dad, and his story came full-circle. In 2012, ‘Searching For Sugar Man’ brought a new wave of popularity to the musician, and he began touring in the US and even in the UK, continuing to live his two lives until his death in August 2023, when Rodriguez sadly passed away aged 81.
Song of the Week: ‘Sugar Man’ by Rodriguez
The melancholy and slightly hair-raising tones in the song create tension, heightened by the repetition of the titular phrase ‘sugar man’. Rodriguez’s iconic and recognisable voice drifts in and out of the listener’s consciousness with his varied intonations on his lyrics; my personal favourite example of this is “silver magic ships you carry”. The echoey fade-out of the track is eerie and reminiscent of the topic of his song: drug taking. In South Africa, the song was prohibited – the records were manually scratched in order to prevent the song from playing, in what was described in the documentary as a “brutal way” of ensuring that it would not go on air.