Music News
6:40 am
Sat July 28, 2012

Rodriguez: Forgotten In America, Exalted In Africa

Originally published on Sat July 28, 2012 6:52 am

Legends rarely disappear. But Sixto Rodriguez that did just that.

A singer from 1960s and '70s Detroit, Rodriguez (whose surname is also his performing title), had some of the lyric quality of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but a voice like James Taylor. Cold Fact, his debut album, layered his aching voice over Motown horns and strings.

Though there was plenty of buildup, Cold Fact never became a hit in the United States. But bootlegged copies made the album — and the singer — a legend in a South Africa in ferment over apartheid.

Then the short, sensational career of Rodriguez ended in spectacular fashion. Rumors of a grotesque death abounded; one even suggested the singer set himself alight onstage one night, burning to death before the crowd.

A new documentary called Searching for Sugar Man explains what really happened. The film's director, Malik Bendjelloul, says the saga of Cold Fact was shrouded in mystery from the very start.

"No one knows exactly how the album came [to South Africa]," Bendjelloul tells NPR's Scott Simon. "But when it came, it just spread, and he became as famous — and as dead — as Jimi Hendrix. Everyone knew his albums, and everyone knew that Rodriguez was completely dead."

As widespread as the belief was, Bendjelloul says, no could agree on the exact cause of Rodriguez's death.

"There is one story that he shot himself dead onstage. Then there's another story that he OD'd and that's how he died. And after 30 years, there's a detective — or actually two detectives in South Africa, like music journalists — who say, 'There are different stories! Which story is the true one?'"

After years of searching, the two journalists finally got in touch with the producer of Cold Fact.

"They call him and they are full of questions," says Bendjelloul. "They ask, 'How was the album made? And the most important thing: How did he die?' And he says, 'No, I saw Rodriguez this morning. He is living down the street!'"

Bendjelloul says the two journalists tried to call Rodriguez to confirm he was alive, but Rodriguez immediately hung up the phone.

"He thinks it's a crank call, a practical joke," Bendjelloul explains. "So they call him again and say, 'Listen, listen, this is true. Did you make an album called Cold Fact? ... In South Africa, it's more famous than Abbey Road.'"

Rodriguez says he was past any dreams of rock 'n' roll fame by the time he got that call.

"I renovate homes and buildings and residences in Detroit," Rodriguez says. "That's what I was doing. I basically went back to work."

The singer has also tried his hand at politics, running (albeit unsuccessfully) for office as a Michigan state representative and as mayor of the city of Detroit. But Rodriguez's greatest political achievement happened without his knowledge, through his music, far away from snowy Michigan.

"The first white anti-Apartheid movement derived [inspiration] from a few rock bands," Bendjelloul explains. "Rodriguez was the first artist that actually had political content that was anti-establishment that got heard. ... By remote control, Rodriguez was actually changing a society."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now the voice of a legend who disappeared for a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIXTO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Sugar man, won't you hurry 'cause I'm tired of these scenes.

SIMON: This is Rodriguez, a singer from 1960s and '70s Detroit, Rodriguez who had some of the lyric quality of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but a voice like James Taylor. "Cold Fact," the first album from Rodriguez, layered his aching voice over Motown horns and strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Silver magic ships, you carry jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane. Sugar man...

SIMON: But even after a major buildup, "Cold Fact" never became a hit in the United States. Bootlegged copies made the album, and the singer, a legend in a South Africa which was then in ferment over apartheid. Then his fans heard that the short, sensational career of Rodriguez had ended spectacularly. This was just one of the stories.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He set himself alight on stage and booed to death in front of the audience. It was the most incredible thing. It wasn't' just a suicide. It was truly the most grotesque suicide in rock history.

SIMON: What really happened is the subject of a new documentary, "Searching for Sugar Man." We're joined now by the film's director, Malik Bendjelloul. Mr. Bendjelloul, thanks for being with us.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Thanks for bringing us.

RODRIGUEZ: Scott Simon.

SIMON: And Sixto Rodriguez, who did not set himself on fire, but continues to set a lot of people in the audience on fire with his wonderful voice.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I don't want to set the world on fire. I just want to put a flame in your heart.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: So, they both joined us from New York. How good to talk to you. How did Rodriguez become a one-man known commodity in South Africa?

BENDJELLOUL: No one knows exactly how the album came. But when it came, it just spread, and he became as famous, and as dead, as Jimi Hendrix. Everyone knew his songs, everyone knew his albums, and everyone knew that Rodriguez was completely dead. There's one story that he shot himself dead on stage. Then, there's another story that he OD'd and that's how he died.

And after 30 years, there's a detective - or actually two detectives in South Africa, like music journalists, who said, there are different stories. Which story is the true one? After years of search, they found the producer of the album. They call him and they are like full of questions. They ask, how was the album made? And the most important thing, how did he die? And he says, no, I saw Rodriguez this morning. He is living down the street.

And they called Rodriguez and to tell him you're bigger than Elvis and he, you know, hangs up the phone. He thinks it's a crank call, a practical joke. So they call him again and say, listen, listen, this is true. Did you make an album called "Cold Fact?" Yeah, yeah, that's my album. In South Africa, it's more famous than Abbey Road.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) I wonder about the love you can't find and I wonder about the loneliness that's mine. I wonder how much going have you got and I wonder about your friends that are not. I wonder, I wonder, wonder, I do.

SIMON: And then, of course, we have to contrast this, as the film does, Mr. Rodriguez, with you were becoming a legend. You were becoming a national symbol in South Africa among people who were griped by the ferment, the romance of revolution. And you became their voice. And all the while, what were you back in Detroit doing?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I was - hard labor. I did demolition. I renovate homes and buildings and residences in Detroit and that's what I was doing. And then, I just left the music scene. So I basically went back to work.

SIMON: And you had no inkling that you were a household name in South Africa?

RODRIGUEZ: No, I didn't until '96 when Sugar Seagerman came to Detroit from New York and he told me about this, quote/unquote, "fan base" I had in South Africa.

SIMON: Sugar is a former record store owner in South Africa who began to search for you, yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: And so that lead to a tour in '98, which is the climax of Malik Bendjelloul's film "Searching for Sugar Man."

SIMON: Mr. Bendjelloul, why do you think it was that Rodriguez became so important to the people of South Africa?

BENDJELLOUL: In those years in South Africa, it was the Apartheid for decades, to have this almost like a Nazi regime in a modern state, which was outrageous. And for years, it was the situation where you couldn't express any criticism. If you did, you could be thrown into jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) The mayor hides the crime rate, the councilwoman hesitates, public gets irate, but forget the vote date, weatherman complaining, predict the sun, it's raining, everyone's protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting, you're not like all of the rest.

BENDJELLOUL: Rodriguez was the first artist that actually lyrical content that was anti-establishment that got heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Smoking causes cancer. The system's gonna fall soon to an angry young tune. And that's a concrete cold fact.

BENDJELLOUL: The first white anti-Apartheid movement derived from a few rock bands. And they said those lines - the system's going to fall soon to angry young tune - were the inspiration. I mean, they kind of - we are going to make those tunes, and that's what they did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Sons and monies drafted, living by a time piece, new war in the Far East, can you pass the Rorschach test? It's a hassle, it's an educated guess, well, frankly, I couldn't care less.

SIMON: One of the features that I really love about the film, about the life story, is here's this man, he's a good man. He's a member of his community. He's a great father. This is a man who is true to the music he made and the promise he brought into the lives of others and there's something really admirable about that.

RODRIGUEZ: Wow. Yeah, Scott Simon, thanks for the critique. It's a dream come true and it's certainly quite an honor, a pleasure and a privilege.

SIMON: Without tipping anything in the film, you do return to South Africa to perform.

RODRIGUEZ: I do all my own stunts in this film.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: No, Rodriguez was not harmed in the production of this film. And one of the things I find so impressive, firstly, the adulation, the reaction of the people in the crowd is so inspiring to see. And then, I must say, a lot of people would be, I think, reduced to a nervous wreck by coming out of relative obscurity into that adulatory sunlight. And you, it's like, oh, yeah, I've been waiting for this moment. You step on stage and the audience is in your hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Going down the dirty inner city side road, I plodded. Madness passed me by. She smiled, hi. I nodded...

South Africa is a beautiful country, gorgeous people. And they're so very sweet to me and so, yeah, it's quite an experience as well. And who would've thought.

SIMON: Malik Bendjelloul is the director of "Searching for Sugar Man" and Sixto Rodriguez is the star and the subject of that film. "Searching for Sugar Man" now playing in New York and Los Angeles. Opens in select cities next month. Thanks so much, gentlemen.

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Thank you so much.

BENDJELLOUL: Let's go out with a little Rodriguez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) And now he sees the news, but the picture's not so clear...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.