Here's how the story begins. It's the 1970s. A singer from Detroit called Rodriguez (Sixto Diaz Rodriguez in full) releases a couple of albums that don't do so well. He's dropped from his label, spends the next three decades working in construction to pay the bills.
Flash forward to today. High praise is heaped on Rodriguez. Critics say that he was a better writer than Bob Dylan. And in South Africa he’s bigger than Elvis. Same guy, opposite ends of the success-failure spectrum.
How did this happen? That's the mystery Searching for Sugarman, a documentary about Rodriguez I saw last week, reveals. (Check out the interview with Malik Bendjelloul, the documentary's director, at the end of the post.) And in case you aren't able to see that film, here's the rest of the story.
Rodriguez, bigger than Elvis – in South Africa
Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, a few copies of his albums had made it to South Africa after he recorded in Detroit. The story goes that an American girlfriend of a South African kid brought the album Cold Fact with her on a trip to South Africa – and Rodriguez's music spread.
Although the music didn’t resonate with Americans, songs such as “Inner City Blues” and “The Establishment Blues” perfectly captured the social angst and turmoil of apartheid-era South Africa.
South African youth started buying the record in 1971, when A&M Records released it in the country. Some of the songs were banned from radio play because of their political nature, but that just made the album more desirable. Rodriguez became a household name, but because of the boycott and sanctions against South Africa and its insular society, Rodriguez never knew.
Listen to Rodriguez on “This is not a Song, It’s an Outburst or The Establishment Blues”
Meanwhile, back in America
Back in Detroit, Rodriguez lived an impoverished life, doing manual labour and raising a few daughters. No one knows who pocketed all the money that was made from selling his music, but Rodriguez didn’t see a cent. Somehow, the rumour in South Africa was that Rodriguez had killed himself onstage by setting himself ablaze, the ultimate act of protestation.
In the '90s, a couple of hardcore Rodriguez fans decided to find out the truth behind the mythology of Rodriguez. They started by trying to trace the money from the record sales. That led to mysterious dead ends, but eventually they determined that Rodriguez was actually still alive and living in Detroit. They contacted the enigmatic musician and told him that, in South Africa, he was bigger than Elvis.
Well, the nonplussed Rodriguez travelled to South Africa in 1998 and played a few concerts to frenzied fans. Imagine discovering that Elvis wasn’t dead, but that he was doing manual labour in downtown Detroit.
Swedish filmmaker Bendjelloul tells the story of the search for Rodriguez in his film, Searching for Sugar Man. “Sugar Man” is one of Rodriguez’s best known songs, about a drug hustler. The mystery of Rodriguez is uncovered in fascinating detail by Bendjelloul.
Peter Armstrong interviewed Malik Bendjelloul recently on As It Happens. Listen to the clip on the left.
Rodriguez's signature song, "Sugar Man."
Searching for Sugar Man is playing in several cities across Canada.
World Voices: Miriam Makeba
Five African tracks you need to hear this summer
Putting junk in the funk