Hello, everyone, and welcome to my first ever Artist Spotlight!
For every rockstar, there are countless other musicians who never got their dues. Singer-songwriters who never hit the big time, despite pouring their heart and soul into their work. Until recently, Rodriguez was one of these forgotten musicians (at least, in America he was). Despite only releasing two albums and writing only 25 songs (by his personal estimation), the man known as Rodriguez has given the world some incredible, life-changing music, and the story of how he came into sudden prominence is so hard to believe, you’d think it was fiction.
Sixto Rodriguez was born on July 10th, 1942 in Detroit, Michigan. His mother passed away when he was only three. His father was a Mexican immigrant who made ends meet as a working class laborer. It was from his father that Rodriguez found his love of music. He learned guitar and dropped out of high school at age sixteen, spending his time playing parties and small gigs around Detroit. In 1967, he released his first single, “I’ll Slip Away”, under the name Rod Riguez. It flopped, and he didn’t record for another three years.
In 1970, he was discovered by producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore while playing in a Detroit bar with his back towards the audience. They were floored by his style and his honest, political lyrics. With urging from Coffey and Theodore, Rodriguez signed to Sussex Records and recorded his debut album, Cold Fact.
Listening to Cold Fact today, you’re blown away by the sheer talent and artistry present on this record. It is undoubtedly a document of its time, but it remains a relevant and fascinating listen today. To me, it is comparable to the work released by mainstream artists of the time period such as Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and Love. It begins with perhaps his most famous song, “Sugar Man”.
Rodriguez talks about the working class reality he sees around him in Detroit, and the “jumpers coke, sweet Mary Jane” he uses to escape from his harsh reality. From there, the album crashes into the psychedelic distorted fuzz rock of “Only Good For Conversation”, to the gentle emotion of “Crucify Your Mind”, to the Dylan-esque folk protest of “This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues”
Other tracks like “Inner City Blues”, “I Wonder”, “Forget It” and “Jane S. Piddy” stand out.
Despite having some of the best songs of the 70’s on it, Cold Fact flopped. But it caught the attention of producer Steve Rowland, who invited Rodriguez to come to London to record his second album with him.
In 1971, Rodriguez released his second and final album, Coming From Reality. Like it’s predecessor, it contained fantastic songs that were unashamedly political and honest. He experimented with longer song lengths, and added string sections to some of his more vulnerable songs (including “I Think Of You” and “Silver Words?”), while also sticking with his rock and roll influences (on tracks like album opener “Climb Up On My Music”) and his storytelling folk on “A Most Disgusting Song”. The album ends with perhaps his most beautiful song, the string-laden “Cause”, described by Rowland as “one of the saddest songs ever”.
Like Cold Fact, Coming From Reality failed to sell, and Rodriguez was dropped from his record label. He quit the music business and took up life as a construction worker and laborer to support himself and his family. He was one of the most talented musicians of the 70’s, and no one had ever heard of him. But unbeknownst to Rodriguez, halfway around the world he was bigger than Elvis, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones.
Somehow, copies of Cold Fact had made their way to South Africa in the mid-70’s. The country was in the middle of apartheid, and ruled by a police state that forbid any provocative music. When the people of South Africa heard the songs on Cold Fact, in particular “Sugar Man” and “I Wonder”, they were stunned. They had never heard anything like it before. Because it was banned on South African radio stations, the album quickly spread through word of mouth and bootleg copies. It became an iconic record that sold millions of copies and became an calling card for the counterculture. Protesters of apartheid and the government bonded over Cold Fact. Anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was a Rodriguez fan. His albums went platinum and were released on CD and vinyl. With Rodriguez reaching such iconic status, South Africans assumed that he was just as popular in America, despite receiving no press whatsoever. With no information about the man other than what was on the record sleeve, Rodriguez was an enigma to the people of South Africa. Rumors began to spread that he had killed himself onstage in America in the 70’s after performing his song “Forget It”.
In 1994, a South African man named Stephen Segerman (nicknamed “Sugar Man” after the Rodriguez song) was curious about the story of Rodriguez, and why nobody could find any copies of his work in America, despite it being everywhere in South Africa. After writing the liner notes for a 1996 reissue of Coming From Reality, he encountered journalist Craig Bartholomew, who was also looking for answers about Rodriguez. They launched a joint search to find him, and created a website dedicated to him. In 1997, Rodriguez’s eldest daughter stumbled across the website, and wrote that she could get Bartholomew and Segerman in contact with him. They spoke to Rodriguez on the phone and informed of him of his massive success around the world. His popularity was completely unknown to Rodriguez. After being dropped from his label, he lived a life of poverty in Detroit, working as a construction worker and taking care of his three daughters. He had never received a penny from his record sales.
After learning of his fame in South Africa, Rodriguez was convinced to go on tour. He was greeted as a superstar, with adoring fans and journalists documenting his every move. On March 6th, 1998, Rodriguez performed his first ever concert in Cape Town, South Africa to a sold out stadium full of awestruck fans, shocked that their idol was alive and performing in front of them. Words can’t really do it justice, so here is a clip from the documentary Searching For Sugar Man that documents that concert:
Rodriguez went on to perform many sold out concerts in South Africa, and returned to America still unknown. But he had finally achieved the success that should have been given to him right from the very start of his career. In 2012, the excellent documentary film Searching For Sugar Man was released, telling the story of Rodriguez and the search for him that Segerman and Bartholomew undertook. With this film, Rodriguez finally found fame in his home country. The movie was a hit, earning critical acclaim and winning the Oscar and BAFTA for Best Documentary. It also introduced Rodriguez to a whole new generation of fans who otherwise would not have heard his incredible music. It led to increased album sales and television performances, like this one on Letterman:
Despite finding success late in life, Rodriguez remains a humble, mysterious figure. He still lives in the small Detroit house he bought in the 70’s, and gives away most of the money he receives from touring and record sales to friends and family. His story is heartwarming, moving, and frankly incredible. His music has changed the lives of millions of people around the world, and will continue to do so for generations. In my opinion, his albums are two of the best ever written. I strongly recommend that you watch Searching For Sugar Man if you haven’t already, because the emotion and beauty present is too much to convey with my mere words. Then, listen to his music, and prepare to discover the greatest singer who never was, a man who changed the world yet lived in obscurity, but his talent overcame barriers to impact the lives of millions.