Searching for Sugar Man is an extremely interesting Oscar-winning documentary. It tells the incredible story of a Mexican songwriter who released two albums in America that completely bombed. However, he soon gained a large audience in Apartheid-era South Africa. Sixto Rodriguez had no idea that he even had a fan base, let alone that he was considered a legend among them.
Rodriguez wasn’t living like a celebrity. He was working labor-intensive jobs and was unaware that his album was selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Unfortunately, he didn’t receive any royalties and was unaware of his fame until decades later. Rodriguez finally found out when a group of his followers looked for him online and brought him and his band to their country to perform. While Searching for Sugar Man is a great documentary, it made people wonder about his life. Here is the story of Sixto Rodriguez and some facts you may not have known about him.
When Sixto Rodriguez was just 16 years old, he started playing his family’s guitar. He started writing songs and performing them at local bars around Detroit. When people heard him sing, they often compared him to icons like Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan. Sixto is a Detroit native, but his parents migrated from Mexico to America in the 1920s.
He was part of the numerous immigrants that moved to Detroit because of the industrial job market in the City. The government launched “Operation Wetback,” but there was an increase in racist anti-immigrant hysteria. It was recommended for many Mexicans to stay in Detroit because, in other parts of the United States, racism was worse.
Growing up, Rodriguez witnessed oppression first-hand throughout the city. His experiences on the streets were part of the inspiration behind his songs and to try to start a career in music. At the time, Rodriguez was doing a lot of physical labor in demolishing and restoring houses. At night time, however, he was making melodies and writing poetic lyrics.
Rodriguez was playing at a local bar named The Sewer in 1969, and that’s where Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey discovered him. The two watched as this shy man had his back facing the audience as he was singing to them. He was soft-spoken, but his message and talent were both clear. They immediately wanted to record an album with him.
Rodriguez had already recorded some songs with a Detroit label in 1967. The songs were re-recorded and featured on his first album, Cold Fact. The album was released by the Sussex record label in 1970. Sadly, the album sold very few copies in the United States, even though it got a four-star review from Billboard.
Rodriguez released his second album, Coming From Reality in November 1971. Unfortunately, it failed just like his first one. A month after it was released, Sussex dropped him from their label. He went back to construction and continued to work hard. Meanwhile, his popularity was growing on the other side of the world. He had a life in South Africa that he wasn’t even aware of.
No one really knows how the album made its way to South Africa. The rumor going around was that an American woman had a boyfriend in Cape Town, South Africa, and when she came to visit, she brought over a copy of Rodriguez’s Cold Fact album. She then shared the songs with some of her friends who wanted a copy. However, they couldn’t find the album in any store.
It seemed that only a few copies of this album were made, which made it even more desirable. A South African record label immediately bought the rights for both albums from the American label. Strangely, Rodriguez had absolutely no idea that an entire country was enjoying his music or the huge fan base he had in South Africa.
Rodriguez’s popularity grew like wildfire, but the singer was completely unaware. He was working long days, assuming no one was interested in his music. People in South Africa were curious about Rodriguez, especially since there was no information out there about him. South Africa was at the peak of the Apartheid System in the 1970s. Television was banned, and the media was restricted and censored.
South Africa was very isolated from the rest of the world. Many people opposed the government and strongly connected to Rodriguez’s anti-establishment and political music. Due to the political messages and the hit song, Sugar Man, which was related to drugs, his album was banned for radio stations. Of course, the ban made it more desirable.
After the song was banned, people all over South Africa wanted to listen to the album. However, nobody knew anything about this man. There were myths and rumors about Rodriguez that were swirling around the country for years. It was commonly believed that after his second album, Rodriguez committed suicide on stage. Some say he set himself on fire, and others say that he shot himself.
In 1990, a few people were curious about this mystery surrounding the singer. Record store owner and Rodriguez fan, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman teamed up with music journalist Craig Bartholomew to search for the truth about the unknown Sugar Man, Sixto Rodriguez. During this time, Rodriguez was working long days in construction; he had no idea people were listening to him, let alone looking for him.
Can you imagine living a typical life, completely unaware of the fame and musical status you have in another country? In South Africa, his first album Cold Fact made Rodriguez a star. He was considered more famous than Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones but, he had no clue until three decades later!
It was his daughter Eva that made this unbelievable discovery in 1997. Stephan “Sugar” Segerman created a website called The Great Rodriguez Hunt and featured a picture of Rodriguez on a milk carton asking for information. Eva came across the site and left a comment with her contact information, explaining that Rodriguez is her father and that she would love to speak to somebody about him.
Eva was surprised when she found the website and wrote, “Rodriguez is my father! I’m serious.” She then got a phone call from Segerman and was told that her dad was huge in South Africa and sold millions of albums. She was even more shocked when the entire country assumed he was dead because he was very much alive.
A few days later, Segerman woke up to a phone call from the one and only Rodriguez. He told the singer about how his music impacted so many people and asked him to perform in South Africa. Bartholomew published his article titled, Looking For Rodriguez,” and it quickly went viral. The man who they thought was dead was living in America this whole time.
Since no one in America even heard about Rodriguez, they didn’t really believe he was a big star overseas. In 1998, Rodriguez was asked to come to play a show for his dedicated fans in Cape Town, South Africa. His daughters were still confused about their father’s fame, but they came to support him during his performance.
When they were picked up in a limousine from the airport, they were stunned by the press and paparazzi surrounding them. Before he even began to sing, Rodriguez was greeted by a standing ovation from an audience of 5,000 people. His shows were sold out, but many fans couldn’t believe that this was actually him. He was known to be dead.
While he was in South Africa, Rodriguez played six more shows before it was time to head back to the United States. He had gained fame is South Africa decades earlier, but nobody in America had even heard of him. It wasn’t until 2012, when the award-winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, was released that he earned recognition in the United States.
Rodriguez has been known to live an extremely modern life, even with his newly discovered fame. He doesn’t live excessively or glamorously, he is still working the same job, and until 2013, he was living in the same home. Today Rodriguez is touring the world, despite the fact he is 75 years old. He makes a lot of money but gives most of it to his family.
Although we found Sugar Man, one question remains surrounding this unbelievable story. If his albums were selling hundreds of thousands of copies in South Africa, why didn’t he ever get paid? Reportedly, South African record labels that rereleased Rodriguez’s albums did pay royalties to Sussex records. In 1975, Sussex went out of the business, and the money trail went cold.
Clarence Avant, the founder of Sussex records, claimed that it was too long ago to remember. It’s pretty obvious that something fishy is going on here. Thankfully, an ongoing investigation and lawsuit is working to uncover where all this money really went. Not only did the record company keep his fame and success a secret, but he didn’t get a dime from his record sales.
One of the most commonly believed rumors about the singer was that “Rodriguez burned himself on stage.” The story was so widespread in South Africa that it was commonly printed in Newspapers. However, this wasn’t the only myth about what happened to Sixto Rodriguez. People around Cape Town heard more stories about the singer.
Some of the other rumors were that Rodriguez went to jail and died of a drug overdose, that he was working in South America in a garage, and that a jealous lover shot him. Many fans also believed he was blind because he sings, “I opened the window and listened to the news,” in the song Establishment Blues from his Cold Fact album. People came up with wild assumptions because they had no information about him.
Due to a lack of funding, some things needed to be finished in a way that wasn’t originally intended. During the first year of production, there was enough money coming in, so they were able to film with a Super 8 Camera. During the last three years, there was barely any money coming in, and it was far too expensive to continue shooting with the same camera.
They ultimately decided to use an iPhone. Turns out the iPhone Super 8 app that cost just one dollar, worked perfectly. For example, there is a bar scene at the beginning of the documentary, where the producers discover who Rodriguez was, and it was all shot using the app. Personally, I didn’t notice a difference at all.
In his songs, Rodriguez brought up many different cities but usually only once. However, San Francisco was one place he mentioned in several different songs, including Jane S Piddy and Hate Street Dialogue. The word ‘Hate’ in Hate Street Dialogue is pronounced just like “Haight,” and Haight Street is a famous street in San Francisco. It was also known for its psychedelic rock scene in the ’60s.
Janis Joplin was a famous resident of the area, and in the album Cold Fact, there is a song called, Like Janis. This may sound a little far-fetched, but people wanted answers. With absolutely no information about the singer, fans had nothing else to go by. Unfortunately, they were wrong considering Rodriguez is a Detroit Native.
Rodriguez released his first album, Cold Fact in Detroit, in 1970; track number six was a song called Inner City Blues. In 1971, another Detroit album came out, the Marvin Gaye classic, What’s Going On. Interestingly, track number nine was also titled Inner City Blues. Furthermore, both tracks had the same bass player.
Bob Babbitt is the legendary bass player, featured on both albums. When Babbitt was asked if he might have suggested Rodriguez’s title to Gaye, his response was, “I don’t remember anything, I don’t even remember the name, Rodriguez.” It has been a while, so Babbitt probably really can’t remember. However, this is still an extremely strange coincidence. When it comes to Rodriguez’s story, there are a lot of unanswered questions.
Malik Bendjelloul directed Searching for Sugar Man and begged Rodriguez to attend the Oscars. Rodriguez refused to go because he didn’t want the attention to be focused on him instead of the filmmakers. Not only did he not show up to the Oscars when the documentary won, but he wasn’t even watching it on TV.
Sixto Rodriguez admitted that he was actually fast asleep when the film won the Oscar. He explained, “We just came back from South Africa, and I was tired, I was asleep when it won, but my daughter Sandra called to tell me. I don’t have RV service anyway.” It doesn’t seem like Rodriguez is grasping what a big deal it is to win an Oscar.
We know that Rodriguez’s 1970’s album was a hit in South Africa. But right after bombing in America, a handful of his albums made their way to Australia. Radio DJ Holger Brockman got ahold of a copy and started playing Sugar Man on 2SM radio in Sydney. Cold Fact was being sold in record stores for over $300. That is a lot of money for an album.
Ultimately, Goose Records released it to be sold all around the continent. Midnight Oil drummer, Rob Hirst, said, “Every single one of my friends has Cold Fact. We’d play Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, Billy Joel’s first album, and Cold Fact.” That is quite the success of an album that completely failed in America.
During the late70s, Australian concert promoters managed to track down Rodriguez in Detroit. In 1979, Rodriguez and his two teenage daughters arrived in Australia for a 15-day tour. Promoter Michael Coppel said that “He was just stunned by what we put together for him. He had never played a concert before, just bars and clubs.”
In Sydney, he played to an audience of 15,000 people. That’s almost as many people who showed up to hear Rod Stewart just a few weeks earlier. Billboard reported, “The man himself seemed almost embarrassed on stage. He spoke no more than a dozen short lines throughout each show. When returning to the stage for an encore at his first Sydney show, he mumbled emotionally to his audience, ‘Eight years later… and this happens. I don’t believe it.’”
The Sundance Film Festival screened the premiere of the film, Searching for Sugar Man in 2012. Swedish actor, Malik Bendjelloul directed the documentary and portrayed the lengths and efforts that two South African fans went to, to discover the truth about Rodriguez. They wanted to find out if the rumors of his death were true and to find out whatever happened to him.
The movie also depicted some shady things going on in the music industry. How is it that Rodriguez was selling millions of records but receiving no royalties? The film was produced by Simon Chinn and John Battsek and was extremely successful. It ended up winning the World Cinema Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award, World Cinema Documentary.
Searching for Sugar Man played in the True/False Film Festival and the Traverse City Film Festival. In July 2012, the film also opened in Los Angeles and New York, and then it gained national attention during its cinematic run. That summer, it was also being screened at European music festivals, including the Way Out West festival in August, where Rodriguez also performed.
By November, it won the Best Music Documentary Award and the Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. The track for the documentary features songs from both of Rodriguez’s albums plus three unreleased songs from his third album (which was never finished). The album was ultimately released on July 24th, 2012.
The film raised many concerns about Rodriguez’s record label and how they completely cheated him when it came to royalties. Although he was previously conned, it has been confirmed that for the new CD, “Rodriguez receives Royalties from the sale of this release.” In February 2013, Searching for Sugar Man won the FAFTA Award for Best Music Documentary.
It also won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards. Rodriguez didn’t even show up to the awards because he didn’t want his presence to overshadow the achievement of the filmmakers. On stage, Chinn said, “That just about says everything about that man and his story that you want to know.” Malik Bendjelloul said, “thanks to one of the greatest singers ever, Rodriguez.”
After the release of Searching for Sugar Man in 2012, naturally, Rodriguez gained media exposure, recognition, and fan interest in Europe and the United States. He had the opportunity to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman as a guest and performed his song, Crucify Your Mind. He also appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed Can’t Get Away.
CNN even featured an interview with Rodriguez, where they discussed his life and career. Other news outlets were interested in Rodriguez and his story, and he was featured on the U.S. television program called 60 minutes. Besides, he was interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show, a U.K. Sunday morning news program. He also performed on the web series, The Weekly Comet, and so much more.
After all this time, Rodriguez finally gained the recognition that he deserved. He had no idea people knew who he was, and he definitely didn’t realize how famous he was. Sadly, he missed out on all the fame that comes with having a successful hit album. First of all, he was unknown in America, and his fan base was mostly in South Africa.
He didn’t get to go on tour, do interviews, or meet fans back then, but at least he can now. The film strongly implies that the singer was cheated out of his royalties, specifically by Clarence Avant. Currently, the matter is still being investigated, and the legal issues are really complicated. At first, Rodriguez seemed indifferent to the situation but has since decided to pursue legal action.
Malik Bendjelloul is the incredibly talented director who worked on Searching for Sugar Man. Sadly he committed suicide in 2014. Police didn’t comment much, but they did say that there was no foul play involved. Malik’s brother, Johan, said that for a short time, Malik did struggle with depression. “Life is not always simple,” he explained.
Before making the award-winning documentary, Bendjelloul was a child actor on Ebba Och Didrik, a Swedish TV series. He also worked as a reporter. Bendjelloul decided to quit his job to travel the world and find out the truth about Rodriguez. It took him four years to complete the documentary, and it was a huge success. Rodriguez’s manager reportedly said that he would not be commenting on the director’s passing.
In 1998, Rodriguez was rediscovered by South Africans, which allowed him to retire from the construction business. Every couple of years, he returned to the country to play some shows, and he also landed some gigs in Europe. When Cold Fact was released on a CD, it slowly started to find an audience across the continent. Unfortunately, his success didn’t reach all the way to America.
Searching for Sugar Man changed all of that. It brought Rodriguez to unbelievable levels of success. Less than a year before, he was playing at Joe’s Pub in New York with a 190-seat capacity. He quickly moved up the ladder, and tickets to his shows were sold out in minutes. He was booked solid at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, which holds 18,000 seats.
Rodriguez still lives in the same modest Detroit house for over 40 years. He doesn’t own a car, computer, or even a television. A few years ago, his daughter Regan forced him to get a cellphone because she was getting tired of driving around the neighborhood trying to find him. Ragan explains that “He lives a very Spartan life; I almost want to call it Amish.”
Ragan continues, “He once told me there are three basic needs – food, clothing, and shelter. Once you get down to that level, everything else is icing.” He plans to give most of his money to some old friends and his three daughters. Ragan has admitted that she wished he would spend some of the money on himself.
In the end, things really have worked out for Rodriguez. He was completely uninterested when Bendjelloul first asked him to participate in the documentary. In 2012, Bendjelloul told Rolling Stone, “His kids told me I could probably meet him, but I shouldn’t get my hopes up about an interview.”
The director went on to say, “I went to Detroit every year for four years. He didn’t agree to be interviewed until my third visit. I think he only changed his mind because he felt kind of sorry for us. He saw how hard we were working and was like, ‘I think I better help these guys.’” Rodriguez later confirmed this story. He stated that he saw everyone working and filming in the middle of the winter and that when he knew how dedicated they were.
At the height of the Vietnam War, Rodriguez actually contemplated signing up for the US Army. He said, “It was the spirit of the times. They have a war every 15 or 20 years, and there’s always a crop of youngbloods who don’t know this is happening. They’ve been inspired by the media.” Rodriguez explained.
He went on to say, “I love my country. It’s just the government I don’t trust.” In the end, he didn’t end up enlisting. He admitted that he had to fight his brother twice over that. Also, I just got married, and they didn’t take people that were married at the time.” I wonder how differently things would have turned out for Rodriguez if he ended up serving in the army.
Back in 1967, Rodriguez was working hard labor by day and playing in Detroit bars by night. Harry Balk was a local producer and was seen at one of Rodriguez’s shows where he recorded his song, “I’ll Slip Away” for impact records (it was later recorded again in the Coming From Reality Sessions).
That’s when Balk changed his name to Rod Riguez. Rodriguez says, “It was his decision. He thought it would be more attractive. I guess stage names aren’t just a thing of today. Managers thought they were a good idea back in the sixties too. Unfortunately, the stage name didn’t do much; either way, the song didn’t do well in the United States.
Rodriguez suffers from glaucoma, a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve. Sadly, it severely limited the singer’s vision. As a result, he usually walks slowly and is holding on to someone else’s arm. “I’m still able to make out some people in the crowd at my shows. It’s a condition that can be treated, though early detection is very important. I can still get around, but I take things slowly,” Rodriguez explains.
He calls himself a “solid 70-year-old,” but his family is understandably concerned about the physical toll that traveling and performing can have on him. His daughter Regan says, I always worry about him, and his health is one of my main concerns. We book him first class and do everything we can to make it comfortable for him.”
Similarly to Chuck Berry, Rodriguez doesn’t tour with a regular band. Instead, there are bands all over the world waiting to play with him. “I like to say that I do covers of my own songs, and I have about a dozen bands all over the world. That’s no exaggeration.” Rodriguez says. He has an Australian band, South African bands, English bands, Swedish bands, and even American bands.
During an Australian tour, his band was the Break, which includes previous members of Midnight Oil. Drummer, Rob Hirst said that his daughter Regan would call them with a list of songs they should rehearse. “We’ll rehearse for a few hours when he comes into town. He doesn’t like to rehearse, so we’ll be flying by the seat of our plants at first.”
Overall, Sixto was honored with the way he was portrayed in the documentary, but he admits that he did have one problem with Searching for Sugar Man. The documentary focuses a lot on Rodriguez’s fame in South Africa but doesn’t mention Australia. His albums were actually released there in the 70s. “It was Australia that helped me out, but South Africa really generated an audience,” he explained.
Sixto just felt disappointed that his Australian fans weren’t credited for helping him reach success in the documentary. He went on to say, “I didn’t write the film. I didn’t have anything to do with the making of the film, and I didn’t call it that either. It’s an independent art form.”
Today, Rodriguez is touring the world and working on a highly anticipated third album. After all these years, he is finally getting the fame and recognition he deserves. His daughter Regan admits that she is one of his biggest fans and is excited about the new album. In an interview, Rodriguez said, “I’m 73 now, so I’m doing it while I can.”
He continued to explain, “Because of that Australian connection from the past, I can now hang out there. There are a lot of people who would not have known me before the film. Putting it out on a video and in a lot of different languages opened up those other markets to me, places like Poland.”
Although it took years for people to finally recognize Rodriguez as the incredible musician that he is, fame didn’t change him much. As we mentioned, Sixto is still living in his old house instead of splurging like a life star. In addition to living modestly, his friends say he lives like an old school rock star and that he likes to chill out and relax by “smoking a lot of weed.”
That sounds like a nice life. For his next album, Rodriguez said that he is using inspiration for his first two albums and that he will record some covers from his favorite artists. Some of these include Bob Dylan, Etta James, and Jefferson Airplane. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
If you really think about Sixto’s unbelievable story, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t wish things had gone differently. However, when reflecting back, Sixto says he has absolutely no regrets about all those lost years of his music career. He simply said, “I don’t mind the way it went.”
He has a good attitude and appreciates his career right now. “You can’t fix that kind of stuff. You can’t really go back in time and change things. I’m a lucky kid in a lot of ways. I’ve seen a lot of the world over the past few years. I’ve got a couple more good years, I think, including in Australia.” That’s a really good attitude that we should all have towards life.