It was in a dark, cavernous nightclub called Sewers, just across the way from the Detroit river, in the late ‘60s when Motown Records producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore came upon an inconspicuous figure in the far corner of the bar, strumming his guitar and singing with his back to his audience.
Smoke filled the air, obscuring any clear view of him, but as his soft voice spread through the room with a style and sound comparable to that of Bob Dylan, Coffey and Theodore knew they struck gold. With jet-black hair and black sunglasses, they came to know this shadow of a man as Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American artist and lyrical genius who would surely become the next best hit — or so they thought.
But what followed in the next few years was not an entrance into the musical limelight, but rather a jump back into the shadows.
After the release of his albums “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality” — in conjunction with the L.A. record label Sussex Records which worked with big-name artists like Bill Withers, Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder — in the early ‘70s, Rodriguez was met with underwhelming support.
Managing to fall through the cracks of the U.S. music industry, Rodriguez was soon dropped from the record company altogether, having sold a total of less than ten records.
Forced to return to reality, Rodriguez took to manual labor jobs, working construction or doing home demolition and renovation to raise and support his three daughters. He became a mystery once again, with many not hearing from him for years.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, 9000 miles away in Australia and South Africa, his records were selling millions. His name, as it was known by this whole audience abroad, was bigger than Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones, Cape Town record shop owner Stephen Segerman said in a documentary about Rodriguez.
The phenomenon of having a small listenership in the States while becoming an international superstar in far-away countries he had never visited before is the big question that to this day haunts both record producers like Coffey, Theodore and Steve Rowland, who betted on his success, and new fans learning of his story.
To Rowland, one of Rodriguez’s producers, he was more than just an artist.
“He was a wise man, a prophet,” Rowland said in the documentary.
It’s in this same Academy Awards-winning 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugarman,” written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul, that the late 1990s quest of Segerman and journalist Carl Bartholomew-Strydom is depicted, where they finally track down their musical hero.
Focused efforts and endless digging ultimately paid off, as the two learned Rodriguez was still alive and based out of Detroit. Leading him across the world to Cape Town’s center stage and giving him the opportunity he never got in America, Rodriguez finally stepped into the role he was always meant to play: musician and performer for millions of his fans.
The origin story of how Rodriguez’s album “Cold Fact” became, as Segerman said, the “soundtrack to life” to the white liberal people of South Africa is believed to be attributed to one female traveler, who brought with her a copy of the record to give to her boyfriend. Soon, more and more bootleg copies were taped and passed along from group to group, igniting the flame that quickly became a raging fire of popularity in cities all around the country.
“In the mid-‘70s, if you walked into a random white liberal middle-class household in South Africa that had a turntable and a pile of pop records, and you flipped through the records, you would always see ‘Abbey Road’ by the Beatles, you would always see ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Simon and Garfunkel and you would always see ‘Cold Fact’ by Rodriguez,” Segerman said in the documentary.
Having grown up drifting through the streets of poverty-stricken Detroit, Rodriguez took the pain and anguish he saw and experienced and turned them into something beautiful, as reflected in working-class songs like “Street Boy” and “Hate Street Dialogue.” In his big-hit song “Sugar Man,” he paints the picture of a drug dealer struggling with addiction in a poverty-stricken city.
To many South Africans at the time, living under the weight of severely racist governmental control during Apartheid, the lyrics in Rodriguez’s songs guided them to their own inner power and opened their eyes to their rights as citizens to protest.
Messages of anti-establishment emanate from songs like “The Establishment Blues,” with lyrics like “Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected / Politicians using, people they’re abusing / The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river.” Same with the song “I Wonder,” which reads “I wonder about the tears in children’s eyes / And I wonder about the soldier that dies / I wonder will this hatred ever end / I wonder and worry, my friend.”
What Rodriguez’s songs did for his South African fans was start conversations and act as anthems that insisted on the need for collective action to fight for their Black counterparts. Soon this anti-apartheid movement gained traction through the spread of music, and while the government took measures like locking Rodriguez’s album up in the Archive of Censored Material and scratching “Sugar Man” off the vinyl to ensure the song never be played on air, as depicted in the documentary, nothing stopped the people from rebelling.
Music was soon at the forefront of change, with a music revolution born inside the Afrikaans community, leading songwriters and performers like Koos Kombuis and Willem Möler to follow in Rodriguez’s footsteps and resist acquiescence.
Still, however, the mystery surrounding Rodriguez remained, as his devoted fans held onto the few sparse details about their music legend — one being a rumor that he committed suicide on stage by lighting himself on fire. With only Rodriguez’s name and small picture printed on the cover of his “Cold Fact” album, his followers embraced the obscurity of his character nonetheless, filling in the gaps themselves and creating a kind of godly image of him in their minds.
That was until Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom, on their quest to find real, concrete answers, discovered his whereabouts through close examinations of his lyrics and an online website calling out to anyone who could contribute to the truth, which connected them with Rodriguez’s daughter.
A phone call was all it took for Rodriguez’s career as a musician to be resurrected.
Soon after Segerman explained to his idol over the phone that halfway across the world he was bigger than Elvis, a flight was booked and a concert venue in Cape Town was scheduled for the arrival of South Africa’s deeply revered singer, Sixto Rodriguez.
The extent of Rodriguez’s humble and modest nature is revealed in “Searching for Sugarman,” even as he stepped off the plane into this other world and later stepped on stage into this other version of himself.
“It’s like he had arrived at that thing, that place he tried to find his whole life,” Bartholomew-Strydom said of that first March night in 1998 when Rodriguez performed in Cape Town.
When he started singing his first song, the crowd, still skeptical it was really him, erupted in cheer as they were met with that all-too-familiar voice that had echoed through the country as their anthem for years.
Rodriguez played six sold-out shows in South Africa and went on to perform in other parts of the world before choosing to return home to Detroit and continuing his modest life as a construction worker. While bootleggers and record companies may have kicked back counting their riches made off his music, Rodriguez returned wealthy in many other ways.
As he sings in the song “I’ll Slip Away,” “And you can keep your symbols of success / then I’ll pursue my own happiness.”
Only after the production of the documentary “Searching for Sugarman” was Rodriguez truly seen and acknowledged in the American public eye, raising the question of what other musical geniuses, who’ve been dealt a bad hand or struck by unlucky fate, are lurking in the shadows of the music industry.
But at the end of this grandiose story — coined by many in the documentary as one of the greatest in rock n’ roll history — that leaves fans, producers, friends and family wondering if it really did happen, Rodriguez’s lifetime passion for music burned brightly up to the day of his death on August 8, 2023.
With or without all the fame and the glory, “Sugarman” finally got the recognition he deserved.