Searching for Rodriguez, the elusive Sugar Man


The passing of Rodriguez has once again brought the reclusive musician’s name into the spotlight that he was so reluctant to step into, writes Jenny LeComte.

THE ANNALS of rock music history are littered with examples of musicians who would do anything for fame, no matter how freaky or perverse. They would actively chase the spotlight in any way they could.

The story of Rodriguez is very different and perhaps unique in the rich history of rock n’ roll. Its very uniqueness and the unquestionable talent of its subject make it both an exciting and unforgettable tale.

While commercial success eluded him in his birth country of the United States, Rodriguez was a cult hero in both Australia and South Africa — something he didn’t find out about until much later in life.

The origins of the elusive rock star, who recently passed away at the age of 81, date back to Detroit, Michigan, where he was born Jesus Sixto (pronounced seez-too) Diaz Rodriguez on 10 July 1942. The sixth child of Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez sublimated his experience as part of the immigrant poor in his music.

Rodriguez described himself as a working-class man who had worked menial jobs throughout his life and was in touch with the trials and tribulations of marginalised people.

He said:

“Boy-girl themes are one thing, but I think the social issues started drawing me away from those [kinds of songs].”

Rodriguez began his career in 1967 performing at various dive bars in Detroit. He scored a record deal with Sussex Records in 1970 and released a politically charged album called Cold Fact.

His signature song, ‘Sugar Man’ (1970), was about the same man for whom Lou Reed was famously waiting in the Velvet Underground classic ‘I’m Waiting for The Man’ (1967). In other words, a drug dealer.

He sang:

Sugar man, won’t you hurry?

‘Cause I’m tired of these scenes.

For a blue coin won’t you bring back all those colours to my dreams?

Silver magic ships you carry.

Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane.

Rodriguez released a second album, Coming from Reality, in 1971 but was dropped by his record label shortly afterwards due to poor sales.

He quit his music career and in 1976, purchased a derelict house in Detroit at a government auction for $50 (US$257 in today’s terms) in which he remained living as late as 2013. To make ends meet, Rodriguez did a series of menial jobs, working on production lines, in demolition and at a petrol station. He became politically active and unsuccessfully ran for the Detroit City Council (1989), Mayor of Detroit (1981 and 1993) and the Michigan House of Representatives (2000).

In the mid-’70s, Melbourne concert promoter Zev Eizik, who at the time was managing Midnight Oil and other Australian groups, flew to the United States to search for Rodriguez. Unbeknownst to him, Rodriguez had achieved platinum success in Australia with his earlier album, Cold Fact.

Imported copies of Rodriguez’s 1973 album, At His Best, which featured the songs ‘Can’t Get Away’, ‘I’ll Slip Away’ and ‘Street Boy’ sold out when the Australian company, Blue Goose Music, released them.

Eizik eventually tracked Rodriguez down to Detroit, where he was working at a petrol station and trying to live a quiet and reclusive life.

Eizik said:

“He wasn’t in a good shape at that time. Physically or mentally, he wasn’t in a situation to take on concerts or touring.”

After a lot of coaxing, Eizik brought Rodriguez to Australia with four musicians from Detroit.

Eizik said:

[Rodriguez] got the shakes before the first concert. He ended up running to the bathroom because he was too emotional. Finally, we got him cleaned up and got him on stage, and when he got on stage, he ended up singing a completely different song to what [the band] was playing at the time.”

The audience loved it anyway, and the rest of the tour was a smash success.

Eizik said Rodriguez was “unbelievably kind, generous and a person who could easily be taken advantage of”.

“Money wasn’t a strong issue with him,” said Eizik. “He never had any money; he found it very difficult to deal with it at that time.”

In addition to promoting Rodriguez in Australia, Eizik also arranged concerts in South Africa — another country that embraced the artist.

At His Best went platinum in South Africa, where Rodriguez – unbeknownst to him – was rivalling the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley for record sales. Eizik apprised him of this. Many of Rodriguez’s songs had anti-establishment themes that appealed to people being unwillingly drafted into the Whites-only South African military. South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was reportedly a massive Rodriguez fan.

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Despite his success abroad, Rodriguez remained oblivious to it until 1997 when his eldest daughter, Eva, came across a fan website dedicated to her father. Few details about Rodriguez were known to South African fans at the time and there were widespread rumours that he had taken his own life in the 1970s.

After contacting the fan website, Rodriguez performed a critically acclaimed tour of six concerts, which attracted thousands of fans. A documentary called Dead Men Don’t Tour: Rodriguez In South Africa appeared on a popular television channel, SABC, in 2001.  

In 2012, a documentary called Searching For Sugar Man premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul of Sweden, it recounted the efforts of two South African fans who wanted to see whether rumours of Rodriguez’s death were true or not.

One of the fans, Stephen Segerman, told the BBC:

“The rumour was that he was dead. To our shock, horror and delight we found that he actually wasn’t dead, he was living in Detroit. We convinced him to come to South Africa to tour and he walked out on the stage in front of stadiums full of screaming fans who sang every word of his lyrics. That was the beginning of his success.”

In addition to earlier offerings from Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, the documentary included three previously unreleased songs from Rodriguez’s third unfinished album. In 2013, it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Producer Simon Chinn said when receiving the award:

“That says just about everything about that man and his story that you want to know.”

Due to the success of the documentary, Rodriguez received belated attention from the American mass media and performed ‘Crucify Your Mind’ (originally released in 1970) on the Late Show With David Letterman and ‘Can’t Get Away’ (originally released in 1971) on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

Around this time, questions started to be asked about whether the phenomenally talented musician had received the money owed to him in past record sales.

In an attempt to allay such concerns, Rodriguez’s former record label published a statement on the soundtrack album for Searching For Sugar Man that said, ‘Rodriguez receives royalties from the sale of this release’.

In 2014, Rodriguez was the subject of a lawsuit where producer Harry Balk accused Clarence Avant, who owned Rodriguez’s Detroit record label, Sussex, of fraudulently withholding money by releasing Cold Fact with credits suggesting that the music was the work of other fictitious people.

The legal complaint read:

‘Unaware of any level of success of Cold Fact, much less the ironic nature of the album, or the fact that his music became on the level of the Rolling Stones in terms of mass popularity in South Africa, Rodriguez gave up his music, believing he was a failure.’

The complaint was settled in 2017 for an undisclosed amount.

In 2015, Craig Bartholemew Strydom and Stephen “Sugar” Segerman published a book called Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez, which Business Day called ‘probably one of the most unusual rock n’ roll stories out there’.

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Rodriguez’s passing prompted a flood of tributes.

Award-winning Australian songwriter and musician Milena Cifali, who has just released a new album called This Is Now under her stage name Milena Luna, recalled seeing Rodriguez live in 2016, an event which she referred to as “an extraordinary privilege”.

Cifali told Independent Australia:

“Rodriguez shuffled onto the stage, wearing his signature black hat and dressed in black. He sat, rearranged himself and shyly strummed his guitar before adjusting the volume. Then his clear voice, mostly unchanged, he sang ‘It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside… I hope you don’t mind that I put down in the words how wonderful life is while you’re in the world’.”

Cifali continued:

It was spellbinding. And it felt like he was singing for each of us individually. He said ‘Thank you for the recognition. Treat me like anybody. I am just an ordinary legend’. The songs from the past, so masterfully crafted, emerged. Sugarman, Crucify Your Mind, Street Boy, I Wonder… his voice cutting through the thousands singing along to each song. The love was in the air, the mood was mellow, the thousands united, just swaying and soaking up this beautiful soul, a humble man, an extraordinary legend.

Simon Chinn, who produced Searching For Sugar Man, said he was saddened by the news of Rodriguez’s death.

Said Chinn:

‘He was a true legend and it was an honour to know him. What a privilege to be able to share his amazing story with the world. RIP Rodriguez — your music will live forever.’

South African musician David Scott said Rodriguez was ‘a legend with the most amazing life story’.

Scott continued:

‘In the U.S. he lived in relative obscurity but was hugely popular in here South Africa without him ever knowing until much later on. We will never witness a story like his in our lifetime again.’

In a 2008 interview with the Detroit News, Rodriguez said:

“All those years, you know, I always considered myself a musician. But, reality happened.”

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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