Searching for Sugar Man

Anna Balzarelli, Micol Mosca & Mattia Vignola, 4DS

The 10th of July, 1942, in Detroit, Michigan, a man and a woman of native American origins became parents to their last son, the sixth one, hence naming him Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. To make it to the end of the month Sixto worked as a mechanic and attended several night classes eventually obtaining a degree in Philosophy at Wayne State University of Detroit.

His biggest passion was music, and in his free time he wrote songs with lyrics inherent to collective issues, representing the social condition of the working class of his country.

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In 1967 Sixto published “I’ll Slip Away”, his first song, totally unsuccessful. He remained unknown for three more years, until he was approached by Mike Theodore, producer at Buddah Records, while playing at a pub in Detroit. Sixto signed a contract and got back to work. It’s the 70’s and Rodriguez, in his late 20s, publishes two albums: “Cold Fact” in 1970 and “Coming From Reality” in 1971. However, sales were meagre and Buddah Records cancelled the contract while he was recording his third album, which was never finished.  Interesting fact: he was fired a few days before Christmas and in a song he wrote just before being laid off he prophetically sings: “Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas, And I talked to Jesus at the sewer, And the Pope said it was none of his God-damned business, While the rain drank champagne”.

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Rodriguez was never rich, and the two albums did not help him earn enough money to make ends meet. He quit pursuing his artistic dream and went back to taking on whatever work opportunities came his way, most often as a construction worker.

From the mid-1970s his music started to be played in Australia and New Zealand. Australian music label “Blue Goose Music” published a compilation of Rodriguez’s best songs and three new ones. This brought to an Australian tour in 1979 and a live album published in 1981. This short period of recognition “down under” did not last and Rodriguez returned to his humble job in Detroit.

He engaged in politics in different occasions, with the goal of improving the conditions of the working class. In 1981 and in 1993 he also ran for mayor in the city of Detroit receiving just a few hundred votes.

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In the meantime, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in South Africa, Sixto’s music was becoming very popular. Even though his music was censored under the Apartheid regime, during P.W. Botha’s presidency, people found a way to listen to it. His songs spread by word of mouth, echoing the progressive views of young white liberals who were growing restless within a segregated society, with lyrics that denounced the establishment, social prejudice, and oppression. In 1981 he was awarded with a platinum disc in South Africa and was as famous as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, if not more.

But Rodriguez knew nothing about it. Even though he was the most popular singer in South Africa, he kept doing his construction job in Detroit, totally unaware of his success abroad.

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Many people kept on asking where he was. Urban legends circulated about him dying of an overdose, being closed in a mental hospital, or having committed suicide on-stage setting himself on fire. So, some South African fans began searching for information about the “lost” singer. A letter was sent to Q Magazine, a British newspaper, but no answer was given. Time passed and in 1997, after a series of unsuccessful efforts in finding him, a web site called The Great Rodriguez Hunt was published. By chance, Sixto’s daughter became aware of it. In 1998 she wrote her phone number to a music journalist, co-author of the web site, and finally the songwriter was contacted. Rodriguez went on a triumphal tour in South Africa, with his daughters, his guitar and not much more. Not having his own band, the group meant to open his concerts, became his new band. In the following years, Sixto would go on other tours to South Africa, Australia and the USA, reaching his fame apex at the Barclays Centre of New York, with 18,000 people attending.

Today Sixto is a famous songwriter, he is still alive, and lives in his old house in Detroit. A house he won at a judicial auction in 1970.

CLICK HERE TO HEAR RODRIGUEZ

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