He’s a successful musician who few in the northern hemisphere had heard of until his story was told in the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man.
Even Sixto Rodriguez himself didn’t know how famous he was in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand…because the money just wasn’t coming in. Now, the mystery of his missing royalties has finally been solved, and folks from the ’70s rocker – likened to Bob Dylan – has finally been paid.
The American singer spent decades working as a builder and had no idea he was famous until he was tracked down by a few obsessed fans in South Africa. His records bombarded the United States and his 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 received the royalties he was owed and – after decades of hand-to-mouth living – he has earned enough money to retire. But he still lives in the same modest Detroit home and refuses to let his fame go to his head.
Stephen Segerman, 67, is one of the fans who found him. The pair are now friends and Stephen, a record store owner, says: “He’s very philosophical about what happened and I don’t think he has retained any anger.
“He’s a lovely, humble guy and although success came to him very late in life, he’s just happy that people are discovering his music and he’s now famous all over the world.
“There was a court case that settled his publication, so he started getting all the money he deserved.
“He knows his life is about as good as it gets – and there’s no doubt that it’s one of the most incredible stories in rock history.”
Rodriguez wrote his seminal album Cold Fact in 1970, quickly followed by Coming From Reality a year later. Its lyrics delve into poverty and drug use in inner city neighborhoods – Sugar Man is the first track from Cold Fact.
Music producers had high hopes that he would be the next big hit and he was signed by famed Sussex Records boss Clarence Avant, who had previously worked with soul star Bill Withers and was known as by Black Godfather.
Rodriguez, however, was cripplingly shy and turned his back on the audience as he performed onstage at a key concert in Los Angeles. He only sold six records in the United States, according to Avant.
He fell into oblivion and returned to work in the construction industry in his hometown of Detroit.
Rodriguez later said of his decision to quit, “I wish I had continued, but nothing beats reality, so I pretty much went back to work. I do hard labor, demolitions, building renovations. I appreciate it.It maintains blood circulation 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 huge hits.
In South Africa, a number of his songs were banned by the apartheid government as they became a soundtrack for the revolution that ultimately led to the fall of the regime in 1994. liberal white teenager in South Africa had a copy of Cold Fact,” says South African fan Karin Wright, 50. “He was castigated at every party. We had no idea that Rodriguez wasn’t a big world star.
In Australia and New Zealand, rare copies began to change hands for hundreds of dollars.
His albums have sold 500,000 copies in South Africa alone. They are said to have outsold Elvis and The Rolling Stones in this country, as well as New Zealand and Australia.
Yet Rodriguez remained an enigma, a mystery hidden behind sunglasses. Fans could know little about him.
Rumors abounded that he 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 an American producer who told him that Rodriguez was still alive. Stephen then created a website dedicated to the singer which caught the attention of his daughter Eva, who got in touch.
Stephen said: “When Craig and I started our search, all we wanted to know was, ‘How did this guy die?
“Then one day at 2 a.m. the phone rang and I immediately knew it was him, because I knew his voice. It’s impossible to describe how I felt. Can you imagine Elvis call and say, “It’s Elvis. How would you feel?”
In 1998, Rodriguez flew to South Africa to play a series of sold-out concerts in front of elated fans. He then toured the world, including London, earning hundreds of thousands of pounds. Then Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul caught 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 Oscars, as well as a BAFTA that year.
Intensely shy, Rodriguez declined to attend the ceremony in Los Angeles, saying he was busy playing gigs.
Two years later, a lawsuit was filed in the United States that finally settled the royalty issues, according to Stephen. The documentary’s acclaim allowed Rodriguez to retire. Tragically, director Malik committed suicide in 2014.
Stephen said: “When we went to the Vanity Fair party after the Oscars we were so lost. I was standing in the middle of that party watching Robert De Niro go by. There was an old man with a buzz on the table , it turned out to be astronaut Buzz Aldrin. I felt like I had landed on the moon.
“It has all been such a wonderful journey and experience. The only real downside to this story is that Malik isn’t around to see the effect his movie had. Malik was just a fun guy who came here and said, “I want to do this movie.” He and I drove around Cape Town with a cameraman who filmed.
“It’s so sad because he had the world at his feet and his film helped bring Rodriguez to a whole new audience.
“A few years ago, I met two Chinese teenagers. They had watched a pirated version of the documentary and decided to buy an RV and drive through Asia and Africa to my front door. That’s the effect this story has on people.
“Rodriguez is thrilled that people have discovered his music and that he has been able to tour the world.”