/ 18 August 2023

Cold Facts about the Sugar Man

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Singer-songwriter Rodriguez performs on stage at Benaroya Hall on July 12, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)

Definition: Legend, noun (story). 1. Historical accounts of the works of saints. 2. Non-historical or mythical tale.

On the same note as the world’s greatest legends plays the rhythmic tale of Sugar Man. The lyrical genius who died many deaths before being found in his humble home in Detroit, USA, alive, breathing, unbeknown to his own myth. The legend of Sugar Man is a story of a Mexican-American singer and songwriter, known by various names, from Rod Riguez to Jesus Rodriguez. 

After signing with Sussex Records, an offshoot of Buddah Records in 1970, two albums were recorded: Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971). The albums sold a semiquaver of copies, and two weeks before Christmas of 1971 he was dropped from the label. Shortly afterwards, Sugar Man quit his music career — and thus died his first death. 

The other deaths include a drug overdose, shooting himself in the head after an unsatisfactory performance, and setting himself alight on stage. There are perhaps many other unrecorded deaths, many other rumours to explain his evanescence. 

As the legend goes, a young American woman visited South Africa with a copy of Sugar Man’s Cold Fact. The songs from this album not only carved a cult movement but also scored apartheid protests by white non-conservative youth, who became conservers of a looming legend. To these South Africans, Sugar Man was one of the biggest artists in the world, one of the most airplayed and believed to have sold more records than Elvis Presley himself. This was in the 1970s to 1990s. Rodriguez was a venerated legendary artist who had died in the early years of his career. 

It was not until 1997 that fate struck a chord that would play out a sequence of events that led to the discovery of Rodriguez’s whereabouts, followed by his own learning of his musical success across the seas and a subsequent sold-out South Africa tour. Fifteen years later, fate played another note when Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul contacted Rodriguez and produced the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, which would win an Oscar and reintroduce its main protagonist to the world.

“I was kind of reluctant about getting involved with it [Searching for Sugar Man], but [Malik] convinced me that he’s gonna do his best there. Well he has, because he’s won so many awards with his film,” Rodriguez recalls. 

And his own contribution? “I’m in the film for eight minutes.”

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Like any good legend, Rodriguez’s story has been interpreted in a myriad ways. Whether rags to riches or tragic hero, it seems as if there is space for every facet of fate the world has decided to place on his name. 

Yet, at the core of all these tales lies a single, simple truth: to tell a story holds the power to change the story itself, sometimes drastically. This story is best told by the man himself, by his words, his poetry.

Definition: Legend, noun (person). 1. A famous or important person who is known for doing something extremely well. 2. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez.

Born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez on 10 July 10 1942 to a working-class family in Detroit, Michigan, music was his family language. He had been chasing a dream since the age 16, one he shared with many a musician: to be signed by a label and record his albums; to play big rooms and tour the world. To sing of change in hopes of seeing it. A staccato of a dream that would end in a resounding crescendo.

“The guitar has been the centre of my music ensemble for the last 50 years. I appreciate what comes out of it, and it’s all in there; the different styles of it. I love music,” he said in a Hollywood Reporter interview.

It was in the smoky bars of Detroit, where the downside of industrialisation burdened the air, that Rodriguez had started to tell stories — his own often tuned into those he observed around him. He could be frequently found in his neighbourhood, a silhouette little more than a shadow, strumming a guitar destined to play for whoever dared to listen. Only but a few cared to listen. 

His first single, I’ll Slip Away (1967), carried lyrics equal parts prophecy and protest. “You can keep your symbols of success/ Then I’ll pursue my own happiness/ And you can keep your clocks and routines/ Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams.” 

Prophecy that seemed to notate the unfolding of his musical career, and a protest against what could be regarded as worldly riches, a protest that appeared to set the tone of his relationship with his music.

His two albums are still considered masterpieces of poetic composition. His timeless songwriting prowess equal to that of Bob Dylan. 

Cold Fact, according to its producers who had worked with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, was the best album they ever put together. And yet, the record remained “Secrets, shiny and new,” in the US for most of this life.

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Sixto Rodriguez poses during a portrait session at Banke Hotel in Paris, France. (Photo by David Wolff – Patrick/WireImage)

But did the failure of his so carefully mended dream not deter him? “I was too disappointed to be disappointed,” he recalls. “[I] lost [my] job two weeks before Christmas” — and then simply carried on with his life.

Meanwhile, South Africans in the 1970s and 1980s could not resist the resonance of his anti-establishment lyrics. “Just climb up on this music/ And my songs will set you free/ Just climb up on my music/ And from there jump off with me” — and a whole generation did.

In a “hostile country where only the stones survive” —a country he had never set foot in — his music asked all the right questions.“I wonder, will this hatred ever end/ I wonder and worry my friend/ I wonder, I wonder, wonder don’t you?”

Rodriguez, an ocean and half a world away, was living a life that could be deemed a different kind of struggle, yet he has proclaimed his unwavering contentment many times in his songs and interviews. “So don’t tell me about your success/ Nor your recipes for my happiness.”

After successful tours in Australia in 1979 and South Africa in 1998, he went back to working in construction. “Back to your chamber/ your eyes upon the wall?” 

“Well, I have a worker’s mentality,” he says, entirely pragmatic, “If it’s broken, fix it.” He continued this work until the success of Searching for Sugar Man prompted successive sold-out tours around the world, including performances at Coachella and Glastonbury.

The much deserved flourishing career was not the only success in his incredible story. When he was unaware of his status as a legend on the other side of the world, he never knew that his songs were earning him a lucrative amount of revenue. 

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His songs were, however, asking, critiquing, prophesying. “Was it a huntsman or a player/ That made you pay the cost/ That now assumes relaxed positions/ And prostitutes your loss?”

Despite America’s record companies gaining “another pound” — and another and another, making their millions off the royalties that never reached him — Rodriguez knew that “only time will bring some people around/ idols and flags are slowly melting.”

In 2022, he won the battle over his royalties and, just before his 80th birthday, was paid what he was owed. Secretly kept in the dark by his record company for decades, the fruits of his labour finally ripened. “Moonshine pours through my window/ The night puts its laughter away/ Clouds that pierce the illusion/ That tomorrow will be as yesterday.” 

Rodrigues’s two albums have been a major success around the world four decades since their original release. Turning blind as he grew older, he continued to live a modest life in his Detroit home, giving most of his earnings to family and friends. He died on 8 August 2023 at the age of 81. 

To the legendary Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, we say: “But oh, if you could see/ The change you’ve made in me/ That the angels in the skies/ Were envious and surprised/ That anyone as nice as you/ Would chance with me.” 

Would chance with us, would chance with the world. May your soul rest in peace.

The article is written with extracts from the lyrics of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez