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.”