A complete unknown in his own country, American-born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez became a cultural icon in South Africa. His unique sound and anti-establishment lyrics made him popular among anti-apartheid youth. The man behind the songs was a mystery until two South African fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, decided to track him down. He might have remained a South African phenomenon had Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul not decided to make a documentary about him and won an Oscar for his work.
Rumours that Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage were so entrenched, the two South African searchers were stunned when they actually found the man. They were just as surprised to realize only a handful of Americans even knew of their musical idol—his daughters and the music-industry insiders who had produced his albums.
Born in 1942, Rodriguez was the sixth child of Mexican immigrants. The poverty and racism of his youth found their way into the songs he began writing in his teens. He dropped out of school at 16 and began playing small bars. Session players Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore discovered his music and introduced him to music producer Clarence Avant.
Avant was about to launch his record label, Sussex. He funded the production of Rodriguez’s first album, Cold Fact. With Coffey and Theodore as backup, the album was released to positive reviews and zero interest.
Rodriguez had a minor revival in 1979, when his albums were re-released in Australia and hit the charts. He did some shows in theaters Down Under and then returned home to his work as a manual laborer.
This is another aspect of Rodriguez’s life that fascinates me. He was a university graduate. He had run for state and local offices. He was smart and talented, yet he chose to immerse himself in work others look down on. Not only that, he appears to have found a deep contentment that is rare.
When the two fans tracked him down and let him know how popular he was in South Africa, they set in motion a concert tour that put in him front of audiences of thousands. When he stepped to the stage, he was so modest, self-effacing yet totally at ease and confident, I was stunned watching the footage. That was 1998, nearly two decades after his Australian tour.
I watched his performance through tears. When he began to sing, the years when he had tucked his music away disappeared. He sang with assurance, with heart, with complete connection to his adoring audience.
He performed in six concerts, each of them for halls packed with thousands of fans. His daughters accompanied him, seeing a side of their father they had never known. And then they returned home. As one daughter put it in the documentary, the chariot turned back into a pumpkin.
Rodriguez went back to his decaying house, to the hard labour he had done all his life, to the astonished and bemused friends who thought he was pulling their legs until he showed them the clippings.
He was not a disappointed man. In spite of being one of the most talented musicians of his era, in spite of two shining albums that flopped, in spite of having been dropped from the Sussex record label two weeks before Christmas—just like the man in one of his songs, “Cause”—he accepted life as it was, without regret for what might have been.
After that first successful tour, he returned repeatedly to South Africa, performing in another 30 concerts. When he came back home, he gave the tour money to his family and friends and went back to work. He also toured in Australia, the UK, New Zealand and New York.
By the end of Searching for Sugarman, I was in tears. Rodriguez has had some success, but back in America he has never received the recognition his music merits. He is only a few years older than I, yet he takes the stage with the faltering steps of an old man. But Rodriguez is free, in a way few people ever are. He is not chained to his music or his labour or anything else. He is free to love his daughters, to spend his days as he wishes, to accept whatever gigs or accolades feel right to him, to speak out for whatever causes seem just. He has an inner peace that is rare. He gives me hope.
Catch the award-winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, if it comes to a theatre near you. Or rent the DVD or watch it online. The video below, Dead Men Don’t Tour, follows Rodriguez’s 1998 South Africa tour.
If you want to know more about Rodriguez, follow the links in this post. You will discover more about the extraordinary musician and read some amazing stories about the people who tracked him down and about the young filmmaker who brought his story to the screen.