The Ultimate Second Chance
By Daniel Brooks
Here is a story full of hope. In the late 1960s, a young man named Sixto Rodriguez was playing his own socially-conscious folk music in Detroit’s clubs and bars. As a second generation Mexican-American whose parents had come to the States in 1920, Sixto grew up in a somewhat run-down area of Detroit, and was quite familiar with the difficulties of poor, working-class immigrants. Born in 1942, his teen years coincided with the folk music boom of the 1950s, which inspired him to pick up his parents’ guitar at the age of 16. Within a few years he had found his voice, and when he wasn’t working in one of Detroit’s factories he was writing and performing original songs full of observant commentary and melodic beauty.
After a short-lived and unsuccessful moment with Impact Records, a small, local label that released his 1967 single “I’ll Slip Away,” Sixto returned to the bars and clubs. Soon, however, he came to the attention of musicians and record label employees Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, who immediately recognized his talent and signed him to Buddah Records’ new Sussex label under his new professional name of Rodriguez.
In the late summer of 1969, Rodriguez spent three weeks in the studio recording his debut. Released in the spring of 1970, Cold Fact had all the elements of a pivotal, defining album: an abundance of concise compositions with haunting melodies, intelligent lyrics full of both social relevance and poetic grace, and inventive studio experiments that let the song stand for itself but often lent a psychedelic dimension to the masterful and passionate performances. By all accounts, Cold Fact should have been a classic. It received positive critical acclaim and should have been the start of a legendary career for Rodriguez, one arguably worthy of comparison to those of Bob Dylan or Marvin Gaye. But it was almost immediately forgotten and one can only speculate as to why it never found its audience.
Time and the music business being what they were, however, Rodriguez was offered another chance. Traveling to London in 1971, he went back into the studio to record the follow up. Like its predecessor, Coming From Reality is an undiscovered gem full of intelligence, passion and grace that rewards repeated listening, and, like its predecessor, it also almost immediately sank without a trace. The record company dropped Rodriguez, only to fold a few years later. Sixto gave up his career as a musician and returned to his life in Detroit, where he worked as a day laborer, a construction worker, pursued a degree in philosophy and ran, unsuccessfully, for local public office.
As a musician, Sixto Rodriguez was an unknown in his own country, but his music was finding an audience elsewhere. An Australian record company bought the rights to his recordings and released them in Australia and New Zealand, where, by the mid 1970s, his music had begun to gain considerable airplay. In 1979, Rodriguez was surprised by an invitation to play a series of shows in small theatres throughout Australia. The tour found him performing in front of audiences numbering in the thousands and resulted in a live album released only in Australia titled Alive. He returned to Australia for a successful follow-up tour, but then returned to Detroit to earn his B.A. in Philosophy from Wayne State in 1981 and settle back into a relatively obscure, normal life.
Meanwhile, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality had found their way to an ever more eager audience of South Africans. Though they were recorded in the context of the uncertain turbulence of America in the late 1960s, themes of poverty, police brutality, and the difficulties of the underclass, as well as the more idealistic beliefs in unflinching honesty, love and hope all resonated with an underground culture growing impatient with Apartheid and its consequences. His song Sugar Man was banned by the South African Government for the belief that it made drug references, and a song like The Establishment Blues found expression in the growing anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s.
By the early1990s Rodriguez had become something of a legendary fixture in South Africa. His personal obscurity, however, fostered a whole new mythology that would have been unrecognizable to him. Rumor had it he had died years before. No one knew how. Some said he had shot himself onstage, others that he might have set fire to himself or died of an overdose. Determined to find out the truth, two fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Strydom set out to discover what had really happened to their hero. They put considerable effort into finding their hero and were ecstatic to find that he was alive and well and amazed that he was unknown in his own country. Rodriguez himself was entirely unaware of his fame until 1998 when his daughter happened upon a website dedicated to him and his music. She contacted Segerman and Strydom about her father and the subsequent meeting between musician and fans led to a tour of South Africa where Rodriguez was treated with the same reverence we hold for Bob Dylan, The Beatles or Bob Marley. The tour was captured in a documentary titled Dead Men Don’t Tour: Rodriguez in South Africa 1998.
Now, this year promises to bring the story and the music to a whole new audience. The story of Segerman and Strydom’s search, and, of course, Sixto Rodriguez’ long overdue fame is captured in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man and has been nominated for an Academy Award in 2013. Rodriguez has been a guest on The Late Show with David Letterman, he has been interviewed for a CNN feature story and his story has been retold on a segment of 60 Minutes. It may have taken a while to find his audience, but at the age of 70, a retired laborer, philosophy student and erstwhile obscure musician is finally getting the recognition his genius deserves.
Letterman 8/14/2012 “Crucify Your Mind”
60 Minutes: Rodriguez: The Rock Icon Who Didn't Know It