‘Searching for Sugar Man’ Subject Rodriguez Dies at 81

Rodriguez, the singer-songwriter whose improbable, stranger-than-fiction career was surveyed in the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary “Searching For Sugar Man,” died on August 9. He was 81. The news was announced on his official website.

“It is with great sadness that we at Sugarman.org announce that Sixto Diaz Rodriguez has passed away earlier today,” the official statement read. “We extend our most heartfelt condolences to his daughters – Sandra, Eva and Regan – and to all his family. Rodriguez was 81 years old. May His Dear Soul Rest In Peace.”

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Born Sixto Rodriguez and billed solely with his last name, the Detroit native worked on a Chrysler assembly line while playing in the Motor City clubs. He attracted the attention of producers Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey (the latter a noted local guitarist). They produced Rodriguez’s 1970 debut “Cold Fact” for the independent Los Angeles label Sussex Records.

“We thought he was like the inner city poet, putting his poems to music,” Coffey said in director Malik Bendejelloul’s award-winning feature.

Both that album and its successor “Coming From Reality,” recorded in London the following year by Steve Rowland, were commercial failures, and by December 1971 Rodriguez had been dropped by Sussex. The musician vanished from the music scene and, in his words, “went back to work” as a laborer, doing demolition, home renovation and restoration.

However, completely unbeknownst to Rodriguez as he installed drywall, his unusual, soulful recordings – gritty, streetwise material like “Sugar Man,” “I Wonder” and “Climb Up On My Music” that mated Dylanesque folk-rock and socially conscious, introspective lyrics with sophisticated production – had attained a fanatical following in some international territories.

Airplay for “Cold Fact” in Sydney, Australia made him a cult star Down Under, and he headlined a 1979 tour of the continent; two years later he shared the stage with Midnight Oil on a return visit. (In early 2019, he was forced to cancel an eight-concert tour of Australia and New Zealand, citing ill health.)

That renaissance (which was not acknowledged in “Searching For Sugar Man”) went unnoticed both in the U.S. and in South Africa, where “Cold Fact” became an underground sensation in the early ‘70s. An executive at one South African label that issued Rodriguez’s album estimated it sold half a million copies.

For years, rumors had circulated in South Africa that Rodriguez was dead – that he had killed himself on stage, by shooting himself or setting himself on fire. In 1997, a journalist and the operator of a fan web site – where the elusive artist’s face was depicted on a milk carton — finally discovered that the singer was in fact still alive in Detroit.

After an absence from music of nearly 30 years, Rodriguez was brought to South Africa for a short series of sold-out concerts. He memorably responded to one audience’s ecstatic applause by remarking, “Thanks for keeping me alive.”

Three of the South African shows formed the basis for a one-hour 2001 TV film, “Dead Men Don’t Tour,” directed by tour percussionist Tonia Selley. A decade later, her footage found its way into “Searching For Sugar Man,” shot on a shoestring, often employing his iPhone after his money ran out, by neophyte director Bendejelloul, who tracked down Rodriguez and his family and musical associates for new interviews.

In the film, garbed in black, his eyes masked with dark glasses, puttering around the rundown Detroit home where he lived for 40 years, the singer emerged from decades in obscurity as a taciturn, provocative enigma. As South African journalist Rian Malan noted in the feature, “He preserved his mystery.”

“Searching For Sugar Man” became a cinematic Cinderella story. It created a buzz at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it captured the audience award, and was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, grossing a healthy $3.7 million in the U.S. The following year it captured both the BAFTA Award as best documentary and the Academy Award as best documentary feature.

More than 40 years after their original release, both of Rodriguez’s albums (reissued by indie Light in the Attic in 2008) finally entered the U.S. album chart in the wake of the film’s success, while the documentary’s companion soundtrack peaked at No. 76. The musician, who turned 70 that year, found a renewed career on concert stages around the world.

Rodriguez was born July 10, 1942, in Detroit. His parents were Mexicans who had emigrated to Michigan in search of industrial work. He grew up in Detroit’s inner city, and began playing guitar in his teens. In 1967, he issued a single, as “Rod Riguez,” on the small local label Impact Records.

He ultimately was discovered playing in a riverside joint called the Sewer, picking a guitar with his back to the audience, by producers Theodore and Coffey. He was signed to Sussex, a new imprint founded by former Motown Records chairman Clarence Avant.

In 1971 the label scored its biggest success with Bill Withers’ debut album “Just As I Am,” and Coffey himself scored a top 10 pop hit with the instrumental “Scorpio,” but Rodriguez’s contemporaneous releases were colossal flops.

Asked in “Searching For Sugar Man” about how many copies “Cold Fact” sold, Avant replied, “Maybe six.”

But in the antipodes and Africa, a myth built up around Rodriguez; in the latter region, his music was embraced by the anti-apartheid movement. The South African government’s radio station went so far as to scratch up the “Cold Fact” track “Sugar Man,” a blunt yet poetic portrait of a Detroit drug dealer, so that it couldn’t be played on the air.

Love for Rodriguez’s music remained fervent in South Africa for decades. Rocker Dave Matthews, who was born in Johannesburg, was a teenaged fan, and later covered “Sugar Man” in concert with his band. The startling revelation by fans Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom that he was in fact alive sparked the tour dates that brought him to the country for the first time.

After hearing the musician’s story during a visit to Segerman’s Cape Town record store, Swedish director Bendejelloul began a protracted and arduous campaign to bring the story to the screen.

In May 2014, Bendejelloul, who suffered from chronic depression, committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train in Stockholm. He was 36.

Rodriguez is survived by his daughters Eva, Sandra and Regan.

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