Rodriguez is an unlikely icon. He is 67 years old, has only recorded 25 songs and has released no new material in the past 38 years. Yet, even as they were ignored by international audiences, songs like ‘Sugarman’ and ‘I Wonder’ have become part of South Africa’s musical heritage.
This unlikely icon was born Sixto (pronounced ‘Seez-toe’) Diaz Rodriguez on 10 July 1942 in Detroit, Michigan, USA – the sixth child of working class Mexican parents.
Intrigued by music after picking up the family guitar at the age of 16, it would be another nine years before he secured his first recording contract in 1967. But the company was declared bankrupt soon after the 25 year old had recorded five original songs as Rod Riguez.
By 1969 he’d secured a new deal and entered a Detroit recording studio during August and September of that year to lay down the twelve tracks that would comprise ‘Cold Fact’.
Released in the United States the following April, it suffered distribution problems and sank like the proverbial stone.
Seemingly undaunted, Rodriguez spent the last few months of 1970 in London recording a second full-length album. Entitled ‘Coming From Reality’ it also struggled to find an audience in the northern hemisphere.
With two commercial failures, he believed his short-lived career was over, unaware that his debut album had made its way to Australia and New Zealand.
By 1971 South Africa could be added to that list. When ‘Cold Fact’ was unleashed in a society of oppression and censorship, local youths embraced Rodriguez’s simple songs that used references to drugs, social decay, political apathy, depression and sex to stoke rebellion and political awareness.
A more low key response greeted ‘Coming From Reality’ when it was released locally in 1972. Despite being reissued in 1976 as ‘After the Fact’ to capitalise on the debut album’s name, it failed to achieve its predecessor’s success.
It was also more or less the last South Africans heard of the mysterious Rodriguez and, with the lack of new output, the well-known rumours of his demise began to spring up.
He was in jail after murdering his wife. He’d died of a heroin overdose. He’d blown his head off, on stage, after reciting his famous lyrics: “Thanks for your time, and you can thank me for mine, and after that’s said, forget it!”
In reality Rodriguez was actually still dabbling in music. He recorded three more songs in the mid ’70s, although none were released at the time, and in the last year of the decade toured Australia. He returned there in 1981 to support Midnight Oil in a series of concerts, but then seemingly disappeared without a trace.
Nevertheless, ‘Cold Fact’ continued its phenomenal local success and reached a new generation when released on CD in 1991. Five years later ‘Coming From Reality’ was also given the CD treatment, enticing local fans to begin a year-long search for him. When finally tracked down by Craig Bartholomew and Stephen Segerman, Sixto Rodriguez was leading a quiet life in Detroit.
A soft-spoken and gentle-mannered man, he was disarmingly modest. “Just your average guy with average talent”, he was completely taken aback by the legendary status he’d attained in South Africa. “I’ve never even played a gig in America, my home country… Nobody was ever interested in my music.”
So since ‘Coming From Reality’ he’d “done a bit of this, a bit of that. I’m solid working class.” He’d worked in a number of odd jobs, including a stint at a petrol station, raised three daughters and obtained a BA in Philosophy.
He also participated in child development programs, advocating the rights of Native Americans and launched several, albeit unsuccessful, campaigns for political positions.
When located by the SA fans all he possessed of his own recordings was ‘Cold Fact’ on a reel-to-reel tape. Yet he agreed to embark on a South African tour in March 1998 and, encouraged by the fevered reception, played several dates in Sweden before returning to his quiet, anonymous life in Detroit.
Following another South African tour in September 2001, his two out-of-print studio albums were reissued locally the following year, just as his signature tune, ‘Sugarman’, began reaching European and American audiences for the first time.
It made a high profile appearance on ‘You’re Da Man’ by Nas and featured on David Holmes’ ‘Come Get It I Got It’ album. Listed by Mojo magazine as one of “The 100 Greatest Drug Songs Ever!” at the time, the song even made its way, rather appropriately, into the 2006 Heath Ledger addiction film ‘Candy’.
And as international awareness grew, so did the demand. With SA again leading the way, by 2009 both his remastered studio albums had been released in Europe and his home country. Critical recognition followed – and, more importantly, so did the crowds.
Since 2004, the frequent return visitor to SA has taken his songs of protest to new audiences. Individual first-time-ever shows in London (2005, 2006) and Rotterdam (2007) led to a full-blown four-month European and US tour last year, while his 2007 Australian comeback gigs have prompted a return visit during March and April 2010.
The legend lives on…
Nils van der Linden
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