Has there ever been a more unlikely musical subject of an Oscar-winning film documentary than Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, who died Tuesday night at the age of 81? And has there ever been an American singer-songwriter who — decades after abandoning a stillborn recording and performing career — experienced a comeback after discovering their music had been embraced by Dave Matthews and a generation of other young, anti-apartheid White South Africans?
«I know every word of every song by Rodriguez,» Matthews told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a 2012 interview.
«The amazing thing is that he spent almost his entire life not knowing he was a major part of our youth culture. For those of us who were part of the largely white youth culture in the liberal minority culture of South Africa — the confused part of the privileged elite in an unjustifiable system of apartheid — Rodriguez was as important to us as Dylan, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye… He is absolutely a major inspiration to me, right down to my heart.»
No cause of death has been disclosed at yet for Rodriguez, whose death was his confirmed by his daughter, Regan, and on his website. He had been in declining health in recent years
Rodriguez, who used only his surname professionally, was the subject of the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary, «Searching for Sugarman.» It chronicled his improbable return to concert stages decades after he thought his career as a singer and songwriter had ended.
«In my case, it’s a phenomenon for this to all happen at such a late date,» Rodriguez told the Union-Tribune in 2012.
He quit music in 1972, after making two commercially stillborn albums — 1970’s «Cold Fact» and 1971’s «Coming From Reality.» Both featured songs that exuded a quiet air of desperation and a hope, however slight, for better days ahead.
Rodriguez spent the next several decades in Detroit doing heavy manual labor and raising a family. He earned a philosophy degree from Wayne State University and launched unsuccessful bids in Detroit for mayor, city council and state senate.
His albums were rereleased in 2008 — a decade after he began performing intermittently abroad. He then belatedly began to earn the attention here in his homeland that had eluded him for so long.
The story of his improbable return from obscurity was the subject of this 2012 Union-Tribune article. here it is in its entirety.
Truth stranger than fiction for Rodriguez — the Detroit singer-songwriter gave up music, not knowing he inspired a generation in South Africa, including Dave Matthews
By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Sept. 22, 2012
Dave Matthews Band leader Dave Matthews and San Diego financial consultant Hillel Katzeff have never met. But the two former South Africans share a unique bond in their love of the music of Rodriguez, the lone-named Detroit singer-songwriter who makes his long-overdue concert debut here Wednesday night at the Casbah.
Never mind that, until this year, Rodriguez was virtually unknown here in his homeland, except to a small sub-cult of music-geek hipsters. Never mind that, at the age of 70, he has only now embarked on his first major U.S. concert tour. And never mind that the tour comes 40 years after his second album, «Coming From Reality,» was released in 1971. (It disappeared with barely a trace, prompting him to quit music for decades of toil doing heavy manual labor.)
Yet, despite his decades of obscurity here, this soft-spoken Motor City troubadour has long been an icon for Matthews, Katzeff and a generation of South Africans who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s.
«When I was growing up in Cape Town, Rodriguez was as popular as Bob Dylan and The Beatles. We listened to his music religiously, and everyone had his albums on vinyl and cassette,» recalled Katzeff, 53, a driving force behind Photocharity, the San Diego nonprofit devoted to helping homeless and at-risk youth.
«I know every word of every song by Rodriguez,» said Matthews, 45, who proved the point by enthusiastically singing all the lyrics to «Sugar Man» and then reciting lines from several other of his favorites by Rodriguez.
«It gives me goose bumps that no one in America knew about him, because he is one of the most influential (musical) voices in South Africa. The amazing thing is that he spent almost his entire life not knowing he was a major part of our youth culture. For those of us who were part of the largely white youth culture in the liberal minority culture of South Africa — the confused part of the privileged elite in an unjustifiable system of apartheid — Rodriguez was as important to us as Dylan, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.
«It’s astonishing to me that nobody in America had ever heard of him. He is absolutely a major inspiration to me, right down to my heart.»
Told that Dave Matthews knew his songs inside out, Rodriguez offered a simple but equally heartfelt response: «Wow, wow, wow!»
The same word might be used to describe Rodriguez’s reaction to the improbable series of twists and turns his life has taken over the past 14 years. Wow is also an apt response for anyone only now learning of his «Twilight Zone»-worthy tale.
A reluctant hero
In 1998, after finally being tracked down by some South African fans, he flew — at their behest — to Cape Town to perform the first in a series of sold-out concerts in large venues.
As «Searching for Sugar Man,» the recently released film documentary about Rodriguez, makes vividly clear, his shock and awe at being welcomed as a conquering hero was matched by the ecstatic response of his South African concert audiences, whose members grew up listening to his music but had never seen him in the flesh before.
«I only met the director of the film, Malik (Bendjelloul), in 2008,» said Rodriguez, speaking by phone from Detroit.
«But I’ve been touring abroad since 1998, which is the year of the climax of the film. I’ve been to South Africa and Australia four times now, Sweden three times and London about five times. That I’m enjoying some success at this point in my life is pretty amazing.»
Does the man born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez agree that patience is a virtue?
«Oh, yes,» he replied. «In my case, it’s a phenomenon for this to all happen at such a late date.»
«Searching for Sugrman» is a flawed film, in terms of both structure and content.
But the story of Rodriguez is so fascinating, his tale of belated artistic redemption so remarkable, that the movie is often riveting despite its lapses.
Ditto the fact that, in the pre-internet age, his fans in South Africa not only knew nothing about the singer-songwriter, but they mistakenly thought he had killed himself years earlier (in mid-song) onstage.
It’s equally unlikely that, in this era of instantaneous digital communication, Rodriguez would not have known his albums had been released in South Africa — first as bootlegs, then more or less officially — or that he wouldn’t have taken legal action, since he has yet to be paid a penny for his hit album sales abroad.
«Today, I can jokingly tell a friend to go (screw) himself in one second, at the click of a button, and the whole world could know about it,» longtime fan Dave Matthews said.
«And if I was in South Africa now, I could spread the word about Rodriguez in one second. But back then, the cloak and challenges of geography made it impossible. So it’s funny that this is all playing out now. I had this conversation about Rodriguez again and again, for years, with people here and in South Africa. No one there could imagine that no one here had heard of him. I predict half of the audience at his (San Diego) concert will be South Africans.»
Drawing from folk, blues and soul, such Rodriguez songs as «Sugar Man,» «I Wonder» and «To Whom It May Concern» weave absorbing musical stories that are earthy and eloquent. Like Dylan, Gaye, Cat Stevens and Nick Drake — to name four especially kindred spirits — the music of Rodriguez struck a distinctly personal chord with listeners.
At least it did with those listeners who actually heard his two albums. Both were released by Sussex Records, which quickly turned its attention (and promotional clout) to the far more successful singer-songwriter Bill Withers, who was also a Sussex act.
Does Rodriguez, a gentle soul who has a degree in philosophy, have any theory why his work resounded so strongly half way around the world but was ignored here?
«As I understand it, a lot of people there exchanged cassettes of my music. I think the isolation of South Africa at the time, and the era of military conscription and government repression, fostered the appreciation for my songs,» he said.
«I’ve met and spoken with my audiences there, so I know from their accounts how it happened. But why my hometown and home country didn’t notice me back then, I don’t know. Life is not linear, not real life. I have to credit the heroes who made ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and also the Internet.»
Rodriguez laughed with a mixture of delight and disbelief.
«In July,» he said, «Esquire magazine named my song ‘I Wonder’ the ‘Song of the Month,’ and it’s 42 years old! There’s no blueprint for success.»
©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This story was originally published August 9, 2023, 1:17 PM.
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