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The Superhero ‘70s Rock Icon Who Almost Never Was

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

“Cause the sweetest kiss I ever got is the one I’ve never tasted” - Sixto Rodriguez

The name Sixto Rodriguez might be familiar with certain folks, while others may never of heard of him. Typically going by just his surname, the singer-songwriter’s quasi-mythical story is an amazing one that celebrates talent, adversity, humility and ultimately genuine admiration, recognition, acceptance and love. Largely unknown in his home country, he became a superhero in another where his music became the soundtrack during an era of extreme political upheaval and struggle for human rights equality. Later, his story was made into an Oscar-winning documentary. Sadly, he passed away on August 8 this year so, in tribute, here is his remarkable tale...

Born on July 10, 1942 in Detroit in the United States to working-class Mexican immigrant parents, Rodriguez had a natural musical ear and aptitude from an early age, yet due to his Spanish-speaking upbringing, always felt like the outsider. Honing his talent, he recorded his first album ‘Cold Fact’ in 1970 and his second, ‘Coming from Reality’, a year later. Expectations were high for both yet, surprisingly, sales were slow and the record label Sussex dropped him. Disallusioned, Rodriguez quit the music scene and, by all accounts, drifted into a life of obscurity, working on construction sites in his home town.

The name Sixto Rodriguez might be familiar with certain folks | featured in Brilliant-Online
Singer-songwriter Rodriguez's quasi-mythical story is a truly fascinating one

Looking back many years later, the producers of ‘Cold Fact’ were completely bemused. “The only writer I had heard of during that time period that was writing that well was Bob Dylan,” commented Dennis Coffey, who knew a thing or two about quality music, having worked with artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, Gladys Knight, Ringo Starr, Wilson Pickett, and The Four Tops. “He was this mysterious, inner-city poet who used his words to describe what he saw on the streets of the hard, gritty impoverished streets of Detroit and added music to it.” Fellow producer Mike Theodore was equally stumped: “Why didn’t he make it? Did he promote enough, do enough performances, was he too political? I don’t understand.”

Sixto Rodriguez was this mysterious, inner-city poet who used his words to describe what he saw on the streets of the hard, gritty impoversihed streets of Detroit , featured in Brilliant-Online
'The only writer I had heard of during that time period that was writing so well was Bob Dylan,' said record producer Dennis Coffey

Steve Rowland, who worked with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, The Cure, Peter Frampton, Gloria Gaynor, and Boney M, produced ‘Coming From Reality’ and was also at a loss to explain why Rodriguez and his music didn’t catch on. “I produced a lot of great artists but he is my most memorable – not just a talent – like a wise man, a prophet, way beyond just being a musical artist,” he recalled. “This guy deserves recognition. Nobody in America had even heard of him or was interested in him. How can that be, from a guy that writes like this,” Rowland reflected. He also explains how Rodriguez was dropped by the label just two weeks before Christmas, something the artist had almost implausibly foreseen and written about on the final song of the album ‘Cause’.

Shrouded in myth

However, even though Rodriguez and many others believed his story had already ended, it was actually only just beginning. The exact details as to how Rodriguez’s music found its way to South Africa are shrouded in myth, although the most plausible seems to be that a young lady brought a copy of ‘Cold Fact’ to Cape Town when she visited her boyfriend in the mid 1970s.

Bootleg copies were made on cassette and the music spread far and wide throughout a conservative country that, at the time, was ruled by a hard-line government pushing their apartheid agenda. People knew full well of the unjust conditions being enforced in their country, particularly on the black population, yet were unable to speak out or protest for fear of serious recriminations, including hard jail time. The government controlled the media, records were purposefully scratched so they could not be played on the airwaves and even televisions were banned. Disillusion and unrest was widespread.

Rodriguez fast became regarded as a rebel icon.  Featured in Brilliant-Online
Rodriguez fast became regarded as a rebel icon in South Africa during a tumultuous time in the country's history.

Most record collections in privileged, white middle class homes at the time consisted of the standard fare such as The Beatles, The Bee Gees, Elvis Presley and Simon and Garfunkel but Rodriguez was soon added to the pile and he fast became regarded as a rebel icon. Anti-establishment wasn’t something even considered at the time yet his lyrics hinted at exactly this – even one of his songs was titled ‘Establishment Blues’. He showed that it was ok to question the order, to show dissatisfaction with an unjust society, to express anger and protest in an effort to help push for equality.

The lyrics to ‘I Wonder’, Rodriguez’s most popular song in South Africa at the time, encapsulate this perfectly:

“I wonder how many times you’ve been had/ And I wonder how many plans have gone bad/ I wonder about the tears in children’s eyes/ And I wonder about the soldier that dies/ I wonder will this hatred ever end… do you wonder?”

Modest and elusive

His music stirred a generation, his lyrics set many people’s minds free and influenced countless emerging bands who used their music to protest against the government and, specifically, apartheid. His music showed there was an alternative to prejudice, injustice and suppression and a way to achieving it - in many ways serving as a remedy to the situation. However, due to sanctions, South Africa was cut off from the rest of the world. No musical artists were allowed to tour and therefore Rodriguez remained a total mystery to his legion of passionate fans. Also, due to the fact he had effectively vanished from the scene, no information at all was accessible on him. People could cross check The Rolling Stones or Miles Davis but not Rodriguez. He was widely believed to have died, with several reports he had committed suicide and thus, in essence, was a ghost. A total enigma. But if anything, this made Rodriguez even more of a national treasure to South Africans. He was their star who helped reshape a generation and was the musical backdrop during a time of so much societal change. He was bigger than Elvis Presley, bigger than The Beatles. He was their superhero, and not just for his musical output.

Sixto Rodriguez's music stirred a generation, his lyrics set many people’s minds free and influenced countless emerging bands | featured in Brilliant-Online
Rodriguez's music stirred a generation, his lyrics set many people’s minds free and influenced countless emerging bands

Two such obsessive South Africans, record shop owner Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew, set out to track down the mythical musician, to clarify the cold facts surrounding his life and possible death. They discovered that he had a similarly huge cult following in Australia and New Zealand, where he had toured in 1979 and 1981 although his footprint outside of these countries and South Africa seemed non-existent. In 1998 Segerman and Bartholomew were rewarded for their efforts when they discovered Rodriguez in his hometown of Detroit, still working in construction and living in the same house he had done since the 1970s, modest and elusive. Shortly after, Rodriguez toured South Africa and was left gob-smacked and genuinely humbled at the reception he received and his popularity which, of course, was unbeknown to him for decades. I was personally fortunate enough to be introduced to his music by the brilliant DJ, producer and soundtrack composer David Holmes in 2002 and managed to see Rodriguez play live in London in 2005, a truly magical moment and a wonderful memory.

Some years later Swedish documentarist Malik Bendjelloul met Segerman and Bartholomew and ‘Searching For Sugarman’ was made. It went on to achieve mass critical acclaim, most notably winning a BAFTA and an Oscar. The subject himself, displaying typical humility, refused to take to the stage to accept the award in Los Angeles as he did not want to overshadow the filmmakers’ achievement, something that producer Simon Chinn said summed the man up perfectly. Subsequent interest in the life and work of Sixto Rodriguez sky-rocketed and brought him the recognition, respect and rewards that he so richly deserved and that had so alluded him for so long. An estimated 500,000 of his records were sold in South Africa prior to 1998 yet he never saw a cent in royalties. The man himself though displayed a typical humble take on a life story that many others would be bitter about:

“All my life, I never gave up on music and though there was a lot of disappointment for some that the commercial thing never happened, it has never been a disappointment for me.”

An estimated 500,000 of his records were sold in South Africa prior to 1998 yet Sixto Rodriguez never saw a cent in royalties. | Brilliant-Online
An estimated 500,000 of Rodriguez's records were sold in South Africa prior to 1998 yet he never saw a cent in royalties.

It seems remiss to try and relay details or attempt a review of ‘Searching For Sugarman’ here as it is something truly special that deserves viewing in its own right. It is a story of a genuine superhero that is completely fascinating, at times dumbfounding and tragic, yet ultimately heart-warming in a way that only a tale as unique as this could be. By the end you are almost certain to have a tear running down your cheek, or at least a lump in your throat! If you haven’t already seen it then you could do far worse than invest in a viewing – and even if you have, it is a tale so fantastic that it deserves a repeat experience.

Rodriguez Performs "Crucify Your Mind" on the David Letterman Late Show


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