Rodriguez, singer whose career was resurrected, dies at 81

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Rodriguez, singer whose career was resurrected, dies at 81
The singer Rodriguez in East Hampton, N.Y., in July 2012, the year he was the subject of the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a Detroit musician whose songs of protest and stark imagery from the urban streets failed to find an American audience in the early 1970s but resonated overseas and led to a late-career resurgence, died on Aug. 8, 2023. He was 81. (Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Rodriguez, a Detroit musician whose songs, full of protest and stark imagery from the urban streets, failed to find an American audience in the early 1970s but resonated in Australia and especially South Africa, leading to a late-career resurgence captured in the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” in 2012, died Aug. 8. He was 81.

A posting on his official website announced his death but did not say where he died or provide a cause.

Rodriguez’s story was, as The New York Times put it in 2012, “a real-life tale of talent disregarded, bad luck and missed opportunities, with an improbable stop in the Hamptons and a Hollywood conclusion.”

Rodriguez — who performed under just his surname but whose full name was Sixto Diaz Rodriguez — was playing bars in Detroit in the late 1960s, his folk-rock reminding those who heard it of Bob Dylan, when producer Harry Balk signed him. In the documentary, Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, who would go on to produce his first album, “Cold Fact” (1970), told of hearing Rodriguez at a particularly smoky establishment called the Sewer on the Detroit River, where he was playing, as he often did, with his back to the audience.

“Maybe it forced you to listen to the lyrics, because you couldn’t see the guy’s face,” Coffey said.

A single released under the name “Rod Riguez” went nowhere. “Cold Fact,” released on the Sussex label, drew a smattering of favorable notices; its first track, “Sugar Man,” gave the documentary its title.

“Rodriguez is a singing poet/journalist, telling stories of today,” Jim Knippenberg wrote in The Cincinnati Enquirer. “He does it with a voice much like Dylan’s, very Dylanesque imagery and a musical backing dominated almost entirely by a guitar. But he’s not a Dylan carbon. Rodriguez is much more explicit.”

Mostly, though, the album went unnoticed in America, as did its follow-up a year later, “Coming From Reality.”

“Getting the records cut was easy,” Rodriguez told The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia in 1979. “Getting them played was a lot harder.”

He was being interviewed by an Australian newspaper that year because, while he had settled into a life as a laborer and office worker in Detroit (though still playing bars and even running unsuccessfully for various political offices), he had — unknown to him — been developing fans overseas. Australia was one place where his music had found an audience, and in 1979 he was invited to tour there. He returned in 1981 for a few shows with the band Midnight Oil and released a live album in Australia.

Rodriguez’s music had found an even bigger following in South Africa, which was still under apartheid and cut off from the rest of the world in many respects. He seemed to have no idea how popular he was there, especially among white South Africans uncomfortable with apartheid and the country’s rigidly conservative culture.

“To many of us South Africans, he was the soundtrack to our lives,” Stephen Segerman, owner of a Cape Town record store, said in the documentary. “In the mid-’70s, if you walked into a random white, liberal, middle-class household that had a turntable and a pile of pop records, and if you flipped through the records, you would always see ‘Abbey Road’ by the Beatles, you’d always see ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Simon and Garfunkel, and you would always see ‘Cold Fact’ by Rodriguez. To us, it was one of the most famous records of all time. The message it had was ‘Be anti-establishment.’ ”

In the mid-1990s Segerman began trying to find out more about the mysterious artist known as Rodriguez and how he had died; rumors were rampant that he had killed himself onstage, died of an overdose, and so on. He joined forces with Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, a journalist who was also searching for Rodriguez, and eventually they found the singer, still living in Detroit. A 1998 tour of South Africa followed, with Rodriguez playing six sold-out shows at 5,000-seat arenas.

“It was strange seeing all those bright white faces, all of them knowing every word to every one of my songs,” he told The Sunday Telegraph of Britain in 2009.

After the South Africa tour he played shows in England, Sweden and other countries. In the United States, the label Light in the Attic rereleased “Cold Fact” in 2008 and “Coming From Reality” in 2009.

And there was another round of rediscovery ahead. In 2012 Malik Bendjelloul released “Searching for Sugar Man,” his first and only documentary (he died in 2014), to rave reviews. The film, which won the Oscar for best documentary feature, concentrated on the search by Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom and included an interview with Rodriguez, who in the aftermath found himself at the Hamptons International Film Festival and embarking on a fresh round of touring.

Matt Sullivan founded Light in the Attic Records, which reissued Rodriguez’s albums.

“His words and music were brutally honest and raw to the core,” he said by email. “It instantly struck a chord the second we heard it, and still does, nearly 20 years later.”

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez was born July 10, 1942, in Detroit. His mother, Maria, died when he was a boy. His father, Ramon, was a laborer who became a foreman at a steel plant.

He said that he started playing the guitar at 16.

“Of course I’ve been into Dylan forever,” he told the Times in 2012, “and also Barry McGuire, the whole ‘Eve of Destruction’ thing.”

During his period of relative anonymity after the release of his albums, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

The “Coming From Reality” album includes a song called “Cause,” a lament about hard times and life’s disappointments.

“They told me everybody’s got to pay their dues,” Rodriguez sings. “And I explained that I had overpaid them.”

But in the 2009 interview with The Sunday Telegraph, he was more serene about his unusual career path.

“My story isn’t a rags to riches story,” he said. “It’s rags to rags, and I’m glad about that. Where other people live in an artificial world, I feel I live in the real world. And nothing beats reality.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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