Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Posted on  by Paul Kilfoil.
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These are the only two albums Rodriguez
ever produced. He effectively gave up his
musical career when both failed in the USA

Sixto Rodriguez was an American singer and songwriter who was active in Detroit in the 1960's and 1970's. He performed in small neighbourhood bars and produced two albums - Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming from Reality in 1971. Both of these disappeared without trace in the USA, to the extent that it was impossible to find them in any music store or online shop. It is estimated that no more than a handful of his records were sold in the USA between 1970 and 2005. Sussex records, the company that produced the albums, itself went bankrupt in 1975 and thereafter Rodriguez' music was simply not available anywhere.

Rodriguez' complete lack of musical success meant that he had to find other ways of earning enough money to keep himself and his three daughters alive. For years he did menial jobs in construction for minimal pay - demolishing walls, carrying rubble and bricks and breaking rocks and stones. In the evenings he continued writing songs and doing occasional gigs in bars, but in the late 1970's he finally gave up on his music career. After that every day was a back-breaking bout of physical labour and a long walk home to his derelict inner-city house in Detroit. But he kept going and successfully fed, clothed and schooled his daughters ; he even had time to run for mayor in Detroit and try to be elected to the Detroit City Council and the Michigan House of Representatives (none of these political endeavours were successful).

But Rodriguez' music was hugely successful in South Africa in the 1970's and 1980's, particularly among students in the Apartheid era who were inspired by the political stance of his songs. It is not known how copies of his two albums arrived in South Africa because they were not available in the country at all, but everybody seemed to have a pirated Rodriguez cassette tape. In fact, when Cold Fact and Coming from Reality were finally released in South Africa (on vinyl) they outsold all other artists, including Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones! In 1991 both records were released on CD in South Africa, and sales soared again.

An elderly Rodriguez performing live recently

Rodriguez knew absolutely nothing of his incredible success on the other side of the world. The record companies and music stores in South Africa were faithfully sending royalties of the sales of his records back to the USA, but none of this money ever found its way to Rodriguez. It was rumoured in South Africa that Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage after one last performance of his song "Forget it" (which contains the haunting lyrics "But thanks for your time / Then you can thank me for mine / And after that's said / Forget it"). So the odd situation existed whereby Rodriguez knew nothing about his South African fans, and they knew nothing about Rodriguez - in fact, his fans thought he was dead.

But in 1994 a persistent and resourceful South African named Stephen "Sugar" Segerman became intrigued by this puzzle and tried to find out more about the mystery musician. He reached a dead end and resorted to creating a web site about his search called The Great Rodriguez Hunt. Amazingly, one of Rodriguez' daughters came across the site and contacted Segerman in 1997 ; the rest is history. In 1998 Rodriguez and his family was brought to South Africa and he performed several live concerts in stadiums packed with tens of thousands of people. The singer and his daughters were absolutely flabbergasted at the overwhelming number of fans that he'd had and which they never knew about. Since then he has toured all over the world and his albums have been re-released in the USA, Europe and elsewhere. Rodriguez is now in his 70's and his eyesight is failing but he is still touring and performing in front of huge audiences.

The story of Segerman's search for the elusive singer was documented in a movie entitled "Searching for Sugar Man". It was released in 2012 and won several international film awards, including the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (ie. an "Oscar"). And in 2016 Rodriguez finally received the official recognition he deserved when Sony Music presented him with a Gold Record award - 46 years late, but better than nothing ...

  © Paul Kilfoil, Cape Town, South Africa