This past December, my aunt-in-law, Cat, asked me for my opinion regarding a Christmas gift she was considering getting my dad.
“Hey, Megan. It’s the Christmas elf bothering you again. I’m thinking about getting your dad the Searching for Sugar Man soundtrack. Have you heard of that documentary? The musician, Rodriquez, released his music in the late 60s and 70s. People thought he was dead, but he was really just under the radar. I think your dad might really enjoy this music. What do you think?”
I had to admit that I had never heard of Rodriguez or Searching for Sugar Man. But I was intrigued.
Well, considering Cat’s numerous past successes in selecting musical gifts that everyone loves, I told her I was certain my dad would appreciate the album. Christmas morning came, my father opened the gift, gave it a listen, and sure enough, he loved it. He and Cat went on and on about the documentary, Rodriguez, the fact that people thought he was dead when in reality he wasn’t, his great songwriting, and more. All this left me wondering, “Who is this Rodriguez?”
Coincidentally, as my interest in Rodriguez began to peak, 60 Minutes had aired a piece on Rodriguez and the success of Searching for Sugar Man just a few months earlier (I LOVE 60 Minutes, Sunday Morning and NPR). While I missed that show entirely, our DVR recorded a replay of the segment that aired in late December. Imagine my excitement when, after our return to Santa Barbara from our holiday in Ohio, I clicked on the recorded program and saw Rodriguez’s segment being introduced by Bob Simon! I really do love it when things work out that way.
The remarkable journey of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, also known as Rodriguez, begins on July 10, 1942 in Detroit, Michigan. Born the sixth child (hence the name Sixto) of working-class immigrants from Mexico, Rodriguez began writing songs about the harsh realities of life in the inner city.
Rodriguez released his first single, “I’ll Slip Away,” in 1967 through the small label, Impact, but he did not produce anything for another three years. In 1970, Rodriguez signed to Sussex Records, and released Cold Fact. He followed his first album with a second, Coming from Reality, in 1971. Both albums earned high marks from critics but fell short in sales. Rodriguez was dropped from Sussex and the label folded in 1975. With slow sales and the fall of Sussex, Rodriguez figured his music career had folded and took on work renovating homes, buildings and residences in Detroit.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music was gaining airplay and large audiences in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Australia. Bootlegged copies of his American folk music style and lyrics about the life and times of Detroit, Michigan were selling out…going platinum. He was, if you can believe it, more famous than the Beatles!
Rodriguez’s songs struck a chord with the people rising up against the crime of apartheid – his music became the music of a movement and a generation.
But, before Rodriguez’s new fame could find its way to him, rumors ignited that he had committed suicide by setting himself on fire onstage, burning to death before the crowd. Other stories started to swirl; a story that he had shot himself dead onstage and yet another one that he had overdosed.
Fast forward thirty years after the release of his first single. Yes, THIRTY YEARS after the release of “I’ll Slip Away,” two music journalists and Rodriquez fans investigated the conflicting stories about the life (and death) of Rodriquez. They did their research, contacting dozens of individuals including the producer of Cold Fact. They asked him standard biographical and historical questions, including one that was preeminent on their minds: “How did Rodriquez die?” They were stunned by the answer.
“I saw Rodriguez this morning. He is living down the street.”
The journalists immediately contacted Rodriquez himself, and thinking the whole thing was a prank, Rodriquez hung up the phone on the two. They phoned him back and explained that his album Cold Fact was more famous in South Africa than Abbey Road. At this phase in his life, Rodriguez was past any hopes of rock n’ roll glory, even with the arrival of these two researchers and news about his supposed fame abroad.
Despite his hesitation, in 1998, Rodriguez agreed to play a series of concerts in South Africa. He figured he’d be lucky to get an audience of 20 to 30 people each night. As he landed, he noticed limos and screaming fans lined up on the runway. He remarked, “There must be someone famous on the plane, or on a plane landing soon.” He didn’t realize that these fans and limos were all for him. He went on to play six concerts in front of thousands.
In 2012, the documentary Searching for Sugar Man was released, detailing the efforts of two South African fans to see if Rodriquez’s rumored death was true – and if not, to discover what had become of him. Sugar Man premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the World Cinema Special Jury Prize and the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award.
The Searching for Sugar Man soundtrack (the gift my dad received) features a compilation of Rodríguez’ tracks from his Cold Fact and Coming from Reality albums. Do yourself a favor and check out this long lost piece of America’s musical history. Whether you choose the documentary or either of his two albums, you won’t be disappointed.
By Megan Luciana Alley, LoaTree Team Writer