The Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the almost unbelievable story of a Mexican-American songwriter whose two early Seventies albums bombed in America, but who wound up finding a huge audience in Apartheid-era South Africa. Sixto Rodriguez had no idea he was a legend there until a group of fans found him on the Internet and brought him to the country for a series of triumphant concerts. But while Searching for Sugar Man (soundtrack and DVD now available) is a fantastic film, it only grazes the surface of Rodriguez’s life story. Here are 10 things you may not know about Rodriguez:
Not only did he skip the Oscar ceremony – he was asleep when he won.
Searching for Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul begged Rodriguez to attend the Oscars, but he refused, feeling it would take the attention away from the filmmakers. “We also just came back from South Africa and I was tired,” Rodriguez says. “I was asleep when it won, but my daughter Sandra called to tell me. I don’t have TV service anyway.”
Australia discovered him before South Africa.
A handful of copies of Rodriguez’s 1970 debut LP, Cold Fact, reached Australia months after the album bombed in America. One wound up in the hands of Australian radio DJ Holger Brockman, who began playing “Sugar Man” on 2SM radio in Sydney. Record stores started selling Cold Fact for upwards of $300, and Blue Goose records eventually released it to huge sales all across the continent. “Every single one of my friends had Cold Fact,” says Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst. “We’d play Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, Billy Joel’s first album and Cold Fact.”
By the late 1970s, Australian concert promoters tracked down Rodriguez in Detroit. He arrived in Australia with his two teenage daughters for a 15-date tour in early 1979. “He was just stunned by what we put together for him,” promoter Michael Coppel told Billboard at the time. “He had never played a concert before, just bars and clubs.” He played to 15,000 people in Sydney, almost as many fans as Rod Stewart drew a few weeks earlier. “The man himself seemed almost embarrassed onstage,” noted Billboard. “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.'”
A live album from the tour was released in 1981, right around the time he came back for a second tour. This time he shared the bill with Midnight Oil at some gigs. “I thought it was the highlight of my career,” Rodriguez says today. “I had achieved that epic mission. Not much happened after that. No calls or anything.”
He’s earning crazy money right now . . .
Rodriguez’s rediscovery by South Africans in 1998 allowed him to retire from the construction business. He returned to the country for shows every couple of years, and he also started gigging around Europe. Cold Fact was rereleased on CD and it slowly began finding an audience across the continent, though American success proved elusive. Searching for Sugar Man, however, changed everything, bringing Rodriguez to a previously unfathomable level of success. He was playing the 190-seat capacity Joe’s Pub in New York under a year ago. He soon graduated to the 700-seat Highline Ballroom, and his shows at Town Hall (1,500 seats), the Beacon Theater (2,900 seats) and Radio City Music Hall (6,000 seats) all sold out in minutes. They just booked him at Brooklyn’s 18,000-seat Barclays Center.
And that’s just in New York City. He has over 30 shows across the world on the books right now, including Coachella and Glastonbury in England. “I call those money dates,” says Rodriguez. “I have a lot of commitments, and the list keeps growing. We have to strike while the iron is hot . . . The money, I must say, is obscene.” He’s not kidding. A recent string of shows in South Africa netted him over $700,000.
. . . and he’s giving away most of it.
Rodriguez has lived in the same modest Detroit house for over 40 years. He has no car, computer or even a television. His daughter Regan forced him to get a cellphone a few years ago because she grew weary of driving around the neighborhood trying to track him down. “He lives a very Spartan life,” says Regan. “I almost want to call it Amish. He once told me there’s three basic needs – food, clothing and shelter. Once you get down to that level, everything else is icing.”
He plans on giving much of his money to his three daughters and some old friends. “That’s his philosophy,” says Regan. “He takes great pleasure in giving it away, especially to people that supported him when he wasn’t a big commercial success. I do really wish he’d spend some of the money on himself, though.”
He nearly went to Vietnam.
Despite being a pacifist, Rodriguez contemplated signing up for the army at the height of the Vietnam War. “It was the spirit of the times,” he says. “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. I love my country. It’s just the government I don’t trust.” He didn’t end up actually enlisting. “I had to fight my brother twice over that,” he says. “Also, I just got married, and they didn’t take people that were married at the time.”
He released a single in 1967 under the name Rod Riguez.
In 1967, Rodriguez was working in a car factory and playing in Detroit’s coffee houses and bars by night. Local producer Harry Balk caught one of his shows and recorded his Donovan-inspired track “I’ll Slip Away” for Impact Records. (It was later re-recorded during the Coming From Reality sessions.) Balk changed his name to Rod Riguez. “It was his decision,” says Rodriguez, still wincing at the memory of seeing his name whitewashed. “He thought it would be more attractive.”
He originally refused to appear in Searching for Sugar Man.
First-time Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul first heard about Rodriguez while traveling through Africa. He originally planned on creating a short film for Swedish television, but the project slowly grew into a feature film. He decided to tell the story from the perspective of the South African fans. “Why did everyone think Citizen Kane was a fantastic movie?” he asks. “It’s because it was really smart. It didn’t tell the story about this rich guy. It told the story of a journalist who is trying to tell a story about a rich guy. That was the thing that hooked me in the beginning, that this story would be different.”
There was only one problem: Rodriguez was very reluctant to appear in the movie. “His kids told me I could probably meet him, but I shouldn’t get my hopes up about an interview,” says Bendjelloul. “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.'”
He’s going blind.
Rodriguez suffers from glaucoma, and it has dramatically limited his vision. As a result, he moves very slowly when he walks, and he’s usually clutching the someone else’s arm. “I’m still able to make out some people in the crowd at my shows,” he says. “It’s a condition that can be treated, though early detection is very important. I can still get around, but I take things slowly.” He calls himself a “solid 70 years old,” and his family is concerned about the physical toll of his constant traveling. “I always worry about him, and his health is one of my main concerns,” says his daughter Regan. “We book him first class and do everything we can to make it comfortable for him.”
He has backing bands all over the world.
Much like Chuck Berry, Rodriguez tours without a regular band. “I like to say that I do covers of my own songs,” he says. “And I have about a dozen bands all over the world. That’s no exaggeration. I have a South African band, an Australian band, Swedish bands, English bands, American bands. They’re all notable musicians, too.” On his recent Australian tour he was backed by the Break, which features former members of Midnight Oil. “His daughter Regan called us and she gave us a list of songs to rehearse,” says Break drummer Rob Hirst. “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 pants at first.”
He’s working on his long-awaited third album.
There are only two Rodriguez albums: Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971). His priority right now is touring, but he’s also beginning to work on new songs. “I have a lot of titles and themes I’ve been working on,” he says. “I played with an orchestra on David Letterman recently. After doing that I know I can go in with a super album idea.” His daughter Regan hopes he follows through with it. “I’m super optimistic about that,” she says. “If you had asked me in the past year I would have said, ‘I don’t think so.’ But he’s been talking a lot about it. We’re even closer, but you shouldn’t count your chickens before they hatch.”