“Oh he was much bigger than the Rolling Stones,” says a South African record company executive. Bigger than Elvis, too. His debut album sold more than 500,000 copies while the republic was still grappling with Apartheid.
It would be startling enough if we were talking about a white South African pop star, but the artist in question is Sixto Rodriguez, who has spent most of his life in Detroit. The tragedy of Rodriguez’s career, as one newspaper headline has it, is that he was a hero in South Africa but a zero in America. His 1970 album, Cold Fact, was a critical success in his home country, but a commercial failure. The same fate awaited his follow-up, Coming From Reality, issued in 1971.
How many copies did Cold Fact sell in the states? Six, according to former Motown boss, Clarence Avant. Rodriguez gave up performing and recording, and worked in the construction industry as a manual labourer
The song everyone knows is Sugar Man, a melancholy tale of drugs that deaden the pain of life. Then there’s the rollicking I Wonder, with the lines: “I wonder how many times you had sex. I wonder do you know who’ll be next..”
These songs were as explosive as bombs for young South Africans living in a fiercely conservative country that was little more than a police state. Yet Rodriguez had no inkling he had a huge, passionate following in a distant land. The local record companies swore they paid royalties on album sales, but the money never seems to have reached the singer.
Nobody in South Africa knew anything about Rodriguez. Instead, they passed around the most lurid rumours, telling how he had committed suicide on stage by blowing his brains out, or even setting himself on fire.
Finally, curiosity got the better of two men – Steven ‘Sugar’ Segerman, who owns a record shop, and musical journalist, Craig Bartholomew Strydom. For years their efforts to find out more about their hero ended in one brick wall after another. The breakthrough came in the late 1990s when Strydom managed to speak with Mike Theodore, who co-produced Cold Fact. When asked how Rodriguez died, the puzzled Theodore told his interlocutor the singer was still living in a suburb of Detroit.
In the last part of this rock-and-roll fairy tale, the searchers are able to meet with Rodriguez and inform him of his fame in South Africa. At the age of 56 he agrees to undertake a concert tour, starting with a tumultuous gig in Cape Town, where audiences acted as if they were watching a man who had risen from the dead.
This documentary by Malik Bendjelloul has gathered awards at film festivals aound the world. It is the irresistable story of the way one man’s music captured the ear of a nation, while he considered himself a failure. It shows Rodriguez rising to the challenge of his belated fame in the most natural and unassuming manner.
The fairy-tale aspect is emphasised by occasional drawings and animations made by the director himself, showing the stooped singer traipsing through the bleak, snow-covered streets of Detroit – one of the cradles of American popular music now fallen into terminal decay.
It remains a mystery as to why Rodriguez never made it in the United States, although it probably had something to do with his Mexican background. While Americans embraced the black singers of Motown, there was no comparable vogue for Latins. Rodriguez had the voice, the poetry and the tunes. What he needed was a decent marketing campaign. It has arrived, better late than never, in the shape of this movie.
Searching for Sugar Man, Sweden/UK, rated M, 85 mins.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 06, 2012