His was an urban legend that spread from the dingy riverside bars of Detroit to the other side of the globe, where his songs became anthems for the anti-apartheid people of South Africa.
Yet, in his own country he was virtually unknown, this blue-collar folk singer known only as Rodriguez. Celebrated Motor City producers Dennis Coffey (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes) and Mike Theodore had high hopes for the gifted singer-songwriter when they discovered him in a smoky wharf district dive and signed him to a recording contract in 1969.
But when his debut album of topical funk-folk songs, 1970's “Cold Fact,” went nowhere sales-wise, and the '71 follow-up “Coming From Reality” did the same, Rodriguez was dropped from his record label — two weeks before Christmas — and he just seemed to disappear.
Later there were rumors of an onstage suicide, by self-immolation or a bullet to the head, depending who was telling the story.
Meanwhile, a bootleg tape of his music made its way around the world to pre-Nelson Mandela South Africa, where its Dylan-esque musical messages (“The Establishment Blues,” “Can't Get Away,” “Inner City Blues”) became rallying cries for the emerging liberal African youth. A government ban on his music didn't stop Rodriguez from becoming a household name.
Now, director Malik Bendjelloul's Oscar-nominated documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” just released on DVD and Blu-ray, is bringing the former construction/demolition worker the fame he deserves at home — 40 years overdue.
And he is in demand.
“Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film at Sundance,” Rodriguez said last week. “Since then they've backed it up with, uh, I did the David Letterman show and they picked it up with a 25-piece orchestra. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the tab for that. And I just did the Jay Leno show with a 20-piece orchestra on Friday, this past Friday.”
The film was released in July 2012, and so was the soundtrack, which is composed of songs from both of his albums, including the anti-drug ballad “Sugar Man,” from which the record derives its title. It is Rodriguez's first album to appear on the Billboard Top 100 chart and it spent 11 weeks on the Top New Artist Heatseekers chart, peaking at No. 1.
Not bad for a 70-year-old hard laborer who went back to demolition and renovation of buildings and houses, which he's worked at for most of the last 40 years. He's even gotten involved in Detroit politics at different times, actually running for mayor and city council (unsuccessfully) and attending protests and rallies when the cause involved the city's working class and poverty-stricken.
“The electoral process is a mechanism for change, I feel,” Rodriguez said. “And there are elections every two years. Yes, I describe myself as a musical-political and social issues bother me. They've gotta fix what's wrong. You know, I'm a working mentality, kind of. If it's broken, find out what's wrong, fix this thing, you know? So that kind of approach, when you hear politics, they can't get beyond a certain point. Some of it is political stagnation in America, and in other countries. And we all have a history, so I get involved and I'm active.”
Meanwhile, back in South Africa, he was, as one record label executive says in the film, “bigger than the Rolling Stones.”
But Rodriguez had no knowledge of this for years, and his South African fans had no idea of his obscurity in his own country — until Cape Town record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman found out in the mid-1990s that Rodriguez's albums had been out of print in the U.S. since the early '70s, and almost no one had ever even heard of the man or his music in his native country.
So Segerman and South African rock journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom began a search, and they eventually learned — via Internet from Rodriguez's eldest daughter Eva, who had found their website — that rumors of the singer-songwriter's death were quite bogus.
“A guy named Segerman, Sugar, who's in the film, he came to Detroit and he showed me the ... CD, and he said, ‘This is what's out there for you.' ... And I was kind of skeptical.”
But Segerman swore to Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, born in Detroit with American Indian and Hispanic blood in his veins and living in extremely modest surroundings, that he was “bigger than Elvis” in a country he'd never even visited.
Rodriguez was persuaded to travel there in 1995. And he was greeted at the airport like rock royalty. He has returned to South Africa four times since and performed in more than 30 concerts. He's also toured Australia several times, too, because they seem to like him there as well.
And now, with the exposure from the film, he is signed to play the Coachella music festival, Glastonbury in England and Primavera music festival in Spain in coming months. He's finally getting royalties for his work, but according to the film he's giving most of the money away to family and friends.
And he's still living in the modest house he's occupied for the last 40 years.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I'm refurbishing that now and I have a couple of bucks to do that. In fact, I talked to my daughters and they're helping me along with it, so we got some new windows on one side of the house, so I'm thrilled that I can do some of that work on that house that I've been in for a while.”