Rodriguez: The bizarre story of the musician who became ‘bigger than Elvis’ overseas without his knowledge

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Tributes have poured in for Sixto Rodriguez, the cult singer-songwriter who, for years of his career, had a huge following in South Africa and beyond without even knowing it. Rodriguez, whose spectacular life story was chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” died aged 81 this week.

The Detroit-born musician had initially struggled to get his music career off the ground in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After being dropped by his record label, the folk-rock musician ended up leaving the industry entirely – while, unbeknownst to him, his music became a phenomenon overseas.

Rodriguez was born on July 10, 1942, in Detroit, Michigan. He started out as a musician in the 1960s, during the height of the counterculture movement. His first single, “I’ll Slip Away,” a catchy composition about remaining optimistic in the face of adversity, came out in 1967.

After signing with Sussex records, Rodriguez recorded two albums, “Cold Fact” (1970) and “Coming From Reality” (1971). The songs on each album have been praised for their lyrical dexterity and musical finesse, often with an overtly political message.

While performing, Rodriguez had a habit of singing with his back to the audience, something he later explained was because he was “concentrating on the music, thinking of the lyrics.” However, the albums failed to connect with a wide audience, and Rodriguez eventually abandoned his third record halfway through making it after being dropped by his label.

By the mid-1970s, Rodriguez had mostly stepped away from professional music and was working as a laborer in Detroit, a job he would remain in for decades. However, at the same time, his music was accruing a following in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, and South Africa.

A compilation album titled “At His Best” went platinum in South Africa, where his music became tied to the country’s anti-apartheid protest movement. In 1997, two fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom, spearheaded an effort to track down Rodriguez, eventually locating him through one of his daughters.

Soon after re-entering the public eye, Rodriguez embarked on a tour of South Africa, performing to thousands of fans at a time. However, he saw scant profit from his years of success, partly due to the proliferation of bootleg records of his music.

The release of the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” in 2012 saw Rodriguez’s career enjoy a second resurgence. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and allowed him to tour large venues in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

In the years leading up to his death, Rodriguez’s reputation transformed from one of unappreciated greatness to that of a truly important artist, whose limited musical output is spoken of in the same breath as giants of the musical counterculture. Rodriguez’s story is a real-life fairy tale of a comeback from anonymity and rumored death.

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