Light in the Attic’s Matt Sullivan, whose reissues prefigured the Oscar-winning documentary, laments the story’s tragic ending.
Matt Sullivan, 38, is a true believer. The head of Light in the Attic, the reissue label he founded in 2003 with partner Joe Wright in Seattle, released Sixto Rodriguez’s two albums, his 1970 debut, Cold Fact, and the 1971 follow-up Coming From Reality, in August 2008 and May 2009, just about the time the late Oscar-winning filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul began working on his documentary about the Detroit singer-songwriter who had become a cult figure in South Africa as a symbol of the fight against apartheid.
The first time Sullivan heard Rodriguez’s “Sugarman,” from a compilation sent to him by his friend, Irish producer/musician David Holmes, he was hooked.
“I couldn’t get enough of it,” says Sullivan who launched the label with This Is Madness, the 1971 sophomore record by hip-hop precursors the Last Poets, and has released more than 150 albums since.
Sullivan then e-mailed South African record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, who put him in touch with Rodriguez and his family, as the fan tried to figure out how to license the albums and get the musician, who didn’t make a penny from all the bootlegs sold in South Africa and Australia, paid.
The search brought him into contact with Rodriguez’s original producers, Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, and music business veteran Clarence Avant, the one-time Motown head who released the two Rodriguez albums on his own Sussex label, most famously the original home of Bill Withers.
Avant refused to answer Matt’s e-mails or phone calls, but Sullivan’s persistence finally landed him a meeting with the elusive label head, who agreed to meet during a wedding anniversary trip to Seattle. After seeing the kind of publicity Light in the Attic generated for its releases, Avant relented and consented to license the two albums to the indie company.
If there’s a villain in Searching for Sugar Man, it’s the flippant Avant, who brushes off talk of contracts signed 40 years ago, though, according to Sullivan, his attitude belies the fervent belief the executive had in Rodriguez and his music, going so far as to ask him to change his name to Jesus Rodriguez to avoid a previous publishing deal, a case now in the courts.
Read more at Rodriguez Label Chief: ‘Our Dealings with Clarence Avant Were Always Positive’ | AUDIO KORNER