On 6th March 1998, when Sixto Rodriguez walks out on to the stage at the Bellville Velodrome for his first South African performance, a 25-year-old mystery will end and a new story will begin. This will be “the answer that, makes the questions disappear”.
The mystery that will be solved is: what ever happened to Rodriguez, the artist who recorded the cult album ‘Cold Fact’ that has been so hugely popular in South Africa since 1971? There have been so many rumours and urban legends all these years. Stories that he was dead, blind and imprisoned have all proved to be false. The simple truth is that nothing happened to Rodriguez. South Africans didn’t know where he was and he barely knew where South Africa was. He knew of Australia and his fans there because he had successfully toured there in 1979 and again in 1981. Since then he had continued his full and varied existence in his hometown and birthplace, Detroit, Michigan. He had raised three daughters, Eva, Sandra and Regan, received a BA Philosophy degree from Wayne State University, travelled around America with a North America Indian tribe and stood as a candidate for public office on numerous occasions, including for the position of mayor of Detroit.
His four recorded albums,’Coming From Reality (After The Fact)’,’Cold Fact’,’The Best Of Rodriguez’ and ‘Rodriguez Alive’, continued to sell consistently and were eventually released on CD, with the exception of the ‘Alive’ album. This was a recording made on his 1979 Australian tour which received a one-year-only limited vinyl release in Australia and is therefore very scarce and collectable.
Besides his continuing success in South Africa and Australasia, however, Rodriguez is virtually unknown in the USA, England and Europe. It was the ex-South Africans who left their homeland in the ’70s and ’80s who spread the word about these albums in these areas. If’is hoped that even though Rodriguez is now well into his 50s, the success of this South African tour will kick-start his belated but deserved career in the USA and Europe. Tours to Australasia and Canada are being considered, as is the possibility of some new recorded material as well as a live CD from the South African Tour.
The revival in Rodriguez’s career happened as a result of the South African release on CD of his debut album ‘Coming From Reality (After The Fact)’. The liner notes that accompanied this CD raised the question of what had happened to Rodriguez and whether there were any “musicologist detectives” out there who felt motivated enough to find out. Well, there was one in Johannesburg and Craig Bartholomew immediately began his one-year search that resulted in him locating and speaking to Rodriguez in August 1997. At the same time, contact was made with Rodriguez’s daughter Eva through an Internet website that had been established to try and find the missing artist. Soon Rodriguez became very aware of South Africa and the large cult following that he enjoyed there as well as the thousands of his CDs that were still being sold there year after year. At this stage Rodriguez himself did not have copies of his own albums; all he had was a copy of ‘Cold Fact’ on a reel-to-reel tape!
In October 1997, Rodriguez, who is a very private and reserved person, was described by his daughter Eva as follows: “My father is in great health physically and mentally. In my eyes, he is ageless, creative, strong, intellectual and different. He has kept his hand and his mind on the music, living a surprisingly average and somewhat alternative life. He has raised three daughters, labored, got an education, ran for political office and pays dues and debts like the rest of us.”
News of his discovery and impending tour was received with a sense of amazement and disbelief by his many fans in South Africa. Nothing short of the news of a joint tour by Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison could have aroused such a reaction. Well, Rodriguez is very much alive and living in Detroit and now, 27 years after his music first appeared in South Africa, he is performing in this country. We South Africans have been privileged to witness many awe-inspiring and wondrous political, musical and sporting events during the past few years. We have witnessed concerts by some of the biggest names in contemporary music. However, this tour must surely rate as one of the most unexpected and eagerly-anticipated musical events ever in our history. It is with great pleasure we South Africans welcome Sixto Rodriguez to our country.
What a wonderful evening! Rodriguez rocked the Whale Hall in Hartenbos and despite some comments to the contrary I think the new arrangements of his songs are stunning. The saxes really drive songs like ‘Climb Up On My Music’ and ‘Only Good For Conversation’ and that Rock and Roll medley (‘Shake Rattle & Roll’, Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ & ‘Hound Dog’) was pure energy from the band and Rodriguez.
I particularly enjoyed the long trippy interlude during ‘Sugar Man’ when Pete Saunders (ex-Dexy’s Midnight Runners) played this real spacey, jazzy piano sound, a bit like Mike Garson used to do for David Bowie in the 70s.
The hall wasn’t full, but the crowd were so enthusiastic, I kept looking back to check where all the cheering was coming from. Rodriguez spent a lot of time smiling and thanking the Big Town Playboys. And he thanked us in Afrikaans; “Baie Dankie”, he said, “…for keeping me alive”. And he came down to the front of the stage a few times to shake hands and he smiled broadly when a girl in the audience shouted: “Rodriguez I love you”.
Rodriguez hasn’t ever recorded any cover versions, and on his last SA tour in 1998 he played only his own music. But this time around he showed what a true legend he really is by making Midnight Oil’s ‘Redneck Wonderland’ his own, then adding bits of ‘The Letter’ and ‘Unchain My Heart’ in the middle of it.
At the soundcheck in the afternoon they played ‘Unchained Melody’ as well but it didn’t appear in the evening’s performance.
A medley of Vanessa Williams 1992 hit ‘Save The Best Till Last’ and ‘What The World Needs Now Is Love’ (written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and a hit for Jackie deShannon in 1965) was dedicated to the victims of last week’s terrorist attacks… a very moving moment.
After the gig Rodriguez sat and signed autographs until everybody had gone home. A great night in the company of great musicians. Thanks for your time, Rodriguez.
— Brian Currin, 18 September 2001
Medley: Save The Best Till Last (Vanessa Williams) / What The World Needs Now Is Love (Jackie DeShannon) dedicated to the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks, 11th September 2001