Sixties rocker Sixto Rodriguez, who found mainstream fame in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, is finally enjoying the fruits of his labours at the age of 80
By Graeme Culliford, 4 June 2022
Even Sixto Rodriguez himself didn’t know how famous he was in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand… because the money wasn’t exactly rolling in. Now the mystery of his missing royalties has been solved at last, and the 70s folk rocker – likened to Bob Dylan – has finally been paid his dues.
The American singer spent decades working as a builder and had no idea he was famous until he was tracked down by a couple of obsessed fans from South Africa. His records bombed in the States and his record label failed to alert him to the fact that he had developed a cult following overseas.
Now, ahead of his 80th birthday next month, we can reveal that Rodriguez has finally been paid the royalties he was owed and – after decades of living hand to mouth – he has made enough money to retire. But he still lives in the same modest house in Detroit and refuses to let his fame go to his head.
Stephen Segerman, 67, is one of the fans who tracked him down. The pair are now friends, and record shop owner Stephen says: “He’s a very philosophical about what happened and I don’t think he’s held on to any anger.
“He’s a lovely, humble guy and, although success happened very late for him in life, he’s just happy people found out about his music and that he’s now famous around the world.
“There was a court case that sorted out his publishing, so he started getting all the money he deserved.
“He knows that his life is just about as good as it can be – and there is no doubt his is one of the most amazing stories in rock history.”
Rodriguez wrote his seminal album Cold Fact in 1970, swiftly followed by Coming From Reality a year later. His lyrics delve into inner-city poverty and drug use – Sugar Man is the first track on Cold Fact.
Music producers had high hopes he was the next big thing and he was signed by famed Sussex Records boss Clarence Avant, who had previously worked with soul star Bill Withers and was known as the Black Godfather.
Rodriguez, however, was cripplingly shy and turned his back on the audience while playing on stage at a key concert in Los Angeles. He sold only six records in the US, according to Avant.
He faded into obscurity and went back to working in the construction industry in his hometown of Detroit.
Rodriguez later said of his decision to quit: “I would have loved to have continued, but nothing beats reality, so I pretty much went back to work. I do hard labour, demolition, renovating buildings. I do enjoy it. It keeps the blood circulating and keeps you fit.”
Little did he know that a few copies of his albums had made their way to the southern hemisphere, where they became a huge hit.
In South Africa, a number of his songs were banned by the apartheid government as they became a soundtrack to the revolution that eventually led to the fall of the regime in 1994. “In the 80s, every liberal white teenager in South Africa had a copy of Cold Fact,” says South African fan Karin Wright, 50. “It was blasted out at every party. We had no idea Rodriguez wasn’t a massive star worldwide.”
In Australia and New Zealand, rare copies began changing hands for hundreds of dollars.
His albums sold 500,000 copies in South Africa alone. They are said to have outsold both Elvis and the Rolling Stones in that country, and in New Zealand and Australia too.
Yet Rodriguez remained an enigma, a mystery lurking behind sunglasses. Fans could find out little about him.
Rumours abounded that he had set himself on fire on stage, died of a drug overdose or joined a left-wing terrorist group. Stephen had no connection to Rodriguez when he decided to solve the mystery with music journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom.
In 1997, Craig spoke to a US producer who told him Rodriguez was still alive. Stephen then set up a website dedicated to the singer that caught the attention of his daughter Eva, who got in touch.
Stephen said: “When Craig and I set out on our search, all we wanted to know was, ‘How did this guy die?’
“Then one day, at 2am, the phone rang and I knew it was him straight away, because I knew his voice. It’s impossible to describe how I felt. Can you imagine Elvis calling and saying, ‘This is Elvis.’ How would you feel?”
In 1998, Rodriguez flew to South Africa to play a series of sold-out concerts to enraptured fans. He went on to tour the world, including London, earning hundreds of thousands of pounds. Then Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul got wind of the story and contacted Stephen to ask if he could help him shoot a documentary.
Searching for Sugar Man won Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 Academy Awards, as well as a BAFTA that year.
Intensely shy Rodriguez refused to attend the ceremony in LA, claiming he was busy playing gigs.
Two years later a lawsuit was filed in the States that eventually settled the issues of royalties, according to Stephen. The acclaim the documentary achieved has allowed Rodriguez to retire. Tragically, director Malik took his own life in 2014.
Stephen said: “When we went to the Vanity Fair party after the Oscars, we were so out of our depth. I was standing in the middle of this party watching Robert De Niro going past. There was an elderly guy with a buzz cut across the table, it turned out it was astronaut Buzz Aldrin. I felt like I’d landed on the moon.
“This whole thing has been a trip and such a wonderful experience. The only real downside to this story is that Malik is not around to see the effect his movie had. Malik was just a fun dude who came here and said, ‘I want to make this movie.’ Me and him drove around Cape Town with a camera woman shooting it.
“It’s so sad because he had the world at his feet and his movie helped bring Rodriguez to a whole new audience.
“A few years ago, I met two teenagers from China. They had watched a pirated version of the documentary and decided to buy a campervan and drive across Asia and Africa, all the way to my front door. That is the effect this story has on people.
“Rodriguez is delighted that people found out about his music and that he got to tour the world.”
Homeland: A Song For Refugees, written by Neill Solomon has a stellar lineup on artists including: Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, Ayanda Bandla, Reine Saad, Cindy Alter, Bienvenue Nseka, Nde Ndifonka aka Wax Dey and JB Arthur on vocals.
With Godfrey Mgcina on Percussion, Fana Zulu on Bass Guitar, Pops Mohamed on Kora, Greg Georgiades on Oud, Wouter Kellerman on Flute and backing vocals of Stella Khumalo, Faith Kekana and Zamo Mbutho along with 15 members of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kutlwano Masote, this is a stellar piece of work.
A Song for Refugees
The song is a tender testimony describing a touching story of the sense of wanting to return to one’s Homeland, no doubt a narrative song that gives voice to the world’s dispossessed and exiled.
The orchestra prologue arrangement sets the tone for Homeland: A Song for Refugees further boasting an epic musical and lyrical interpretation…an unquestionable landmark song with the narrative carried by the voices and instrumentation, delivering heart-breaking conviction.
There’s a sense of soul soothing hope layered in the song.
The most prominent lyric has to be Strange Birds Singing revealing the essence of the song ….in envy of winged creatures that hold no borders.
With this song the hope is to spread global awareness about the continuing refugee crisis.
A new record deal, album and an upcoming tour, Watershed proves that not even a pandemic can keep them down.
While many of South Africa’s landmark rock bands have hung up their guitars, there is at least one that has weathered the storm that is Covid-19 and come out of it better than ever. The past two years have seen Watershed secure a European record deal with the German-based independent label On-Stage, release their seventh studio album and now they’re ready to tour not only SA but also internationally.
“It’s been an incredible 21 years,” comments lead vocalist Craig Hinds. Though as a band they started relatively understated, their debut single “Shine on Me” launched the group to national stardom, with the follow-ups “Indigo Girl” and “Letters” making them certified rockstars. Over the years, the pop-rock band have managed to keep up that momentum with plenty of chart-topping hits and, because of this, they’ve continued to tour beyond their home soil of SA.
At the peak of their careers, the band was blind-sided by Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown of 2020. “The pandemic affected our touring schedule with shows having to be cancelled and international tours postponed,” explains Craig.
While many bands weren’t able to survive the lockdown, Watershed regrouped and adapted. Craig and the band used their time at home to reflect on themselves as well as their music with Craig being able to spend this time writing more songs. The result? Elephant in the Room, an authentic, stripped-down album that mirrors the time we live in and daily frustrations felt, which was released last year. “We have had two great singles off the album, ‘Undone’ and ‘Empty Space’, with both doing really well and ‘Undone’ getting to number 1 on the charts,” notes Craig. “Both singles and the album are also doing phenomenally in Europe.” This sees the second time that standing Watershed lead guitarist, Gideon Botes produced an album for the band, having also worked behind the scenes on their 2018 studio album Harbour. “His production genius has added volumes to our new albums and our current sound,” adds Craig.
And, as things stand now in 2022, Craig says that the band is cautiously optimistic –finally, after two postponements, they will be touring Germany in June 2022. “All we can do is hold thumbs that things stay on the trajectory they are now and we can get back to some sort of normal.”
Though this is their first international tour since the pandemic, they have been lucky enough to do some live performances in SA and the band has enjoyed watching the crowds increase in size as things open up. “Touring is what we do,” exclaims Craig. “It’s fun and allows us to visit Incredible parts of our country and the world. We get to see smiles on people’s faces and gather more material for new songs as we travel and share.”
Reflecting on the state of music now, Craig admits that it’s tough. Streaming has had a heavy impact on artists with little to no money being earned through these channels. This leaves touring and live shows as the most important part of music for any band. “There is lots of music out there and some marvelous songs going around but it’s become more about sustainability. Are bands able to maintain a career?” he says. “The consumption of music is rapid. New songs are getting a few weeks in the sun but as quickly as they go up the charts they vanish at the same rate.” But, he says, it’s still very much about trying to build a loyal fan base that will support you to the ends of the earth.
And, Watershed can boast a loyal fan base that has been with them for over two decades. It’s this fandom that will most appreciate their next project which will see them re-recording their classic hits like “Indigo Girl” and “Letters”, while also allowing for a whole new generation to connect with their music. “We won’t change them too much, but it’s just really about recapturing them with more current sounds and a fresh vocal,” admits Craig. “I think my voice has changed over the years and I look forward to seeing the potential of these hits topping the charts again… who knows?”
For those who are going to their first Watershed live performance, you can expect a big show filled and amazing energy. They’ll be touring flat out in SA until May and then they’ll head for Germany for a big 13 show tour. Tickets are selling fast as people are clearly hyped to see the band in the element on stage. “At the same time, we will be working on new tracks.” teases Craig. “We will probably start tracking a new album later this year for a release early to mid-2023!”
The Elephant in the Room tour
South African tour dates
|1 April||café Roux, Noordhoek|
|2 & 3 April||Warwick Wine Estate, Stellenbosch|
|9 April||Kaapzicht Wine Estate, Stellenbosch|
|6 May||The Barnyard Theatre Suncoast, Durban Beach|
|7 May||The Groves Venue, KwaZulu-Natal Midlands|
|13 May||The Barnyard Theatre Silverstar, Krugersdorp|
|14 May||The Barnyard Theatre Menlyn, Menlyn|
German tour dates
|12 June||Fernsehgarten Show, Mainz|
|13 June||Feierwerk, München|
|15 June||Meisenfrei, Bremen|
|16 June||Piano, Dortmund|
|17 June||das Rind, Rüsselsheim am Main|
|18 June||Hallenbad, Wolfsburg|
|20 June||Knust, Hamburg|
|21 June||Keller Z87, Würzburg|
|22 June||Zauberberg, Passau|
|23 June||Reigen, AT-Wien|
|25 June||Open Air, Ludwigsfelde|
Their album Elephant in the Room is available on all digital platforms as well as CD and vinyl. Head to the Watershed website (https://www.watershed.co.za/tour-dates) to purchase tickets to their upcoming shows and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for news.