Sixto Rodriguez, who has died aged 81, was a Mexican-American singer with a exceptional historical past. He recorded a few albums below the title Rodriguez within the early Seventies, however they flopped and he was pressured to observe a sequence of different careers, together with work on a development web site. He lived modestly, with no automotive or telephone, and by no means realised that he had change into a hero in apartheid-era South Africa, the place his data had been bestsellers, however the place his identification was shrouded in thriller.
There have been weird tales that he had killed himself on stage or suffered a drug overdose – till two South African followers tracked him down in Detroit in 1996, which led to his surprising musical resurrection. In 1998 he made a triumphant tour of South Africa, when he sang to hundreds of followers that he had by no means recognized to exist.
That was simply the beginning. He would take pleasure in even better success in 2012, with the discharge of Looking for Sugar Man, an Oscar-winning documentary about his life and the South Africans’ quest to seek out him. The movie’s Swedish director, Malik Bendjelloul, mentioned: “In South Africa he’s as well-known because the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. There, he’s within the pantheon of rock gods – and I believe that’s the place he belongs.” Then, on the age of 70, Rodriguez grew to become a global star.
In November that 12 months, his British tour included a headlining live performance on the Royal Pageant Corridor in London. He got here on stage that evening wanting like a veteran rocker, a stooping determine in black hat and black leather-based trousers, however with the voice of a far youthful man. Greeted by an excited member of the viewers who screamed “You’re a legend”, he replied “That appears like a South African accent” – which after all it was. He then gave a set that blended quite a lot of kinds. He included the upbeat protest The Institution Blues (“This method’s gonna fall quickly”) by to his best-known tune, Sugar Man, as soon as banned from the radio by the South African authorities due to its drug references.
Then there have been covers starting from Fever to Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone (through which he sounded remarkably just like the early Dylan), and even the Frank Sinatra favorite Studying the Blues. It was, I concluded on the time, “an entertainingly patchy set, however the South Africans adored it”. Rodriguez went on to play far greater venues, together with Glastonbury and the Coachella competition in California in 2013, whereas the soundtrack for Looking for Sugar Man grew to become a worldwide success.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, he was named Sixto because the sixth little one of Ramon and Maria Rodriguez. His father was Mexican, and had moved to town within the Nineteen Twenties to seek out handbook work. His mom, a Native American, died when Sixto was 4 years previous. Rising up in a single-parent, working-class atmosphere, he first grew to become inquisitive about music after listening to his father play Mexican folks songs that usually moved him to tears – “I might all the time hearken to his heartbreaking songs,” he mentioned. “He beloved music and I picked it up by him.” He started taking part in on a household guitar, and, he mentioned, “it altered my life”.
Dropping out of faculty as quickly as he turned 16, he mingled with Vietnam draft dodgers and artists at Wayne State College’s Detroit campus, and in 1967 he launched a single, I’ll Slip Away, as “Rod Riguez” on the native label Influence Information. He was then signed to the LA-based Sussex Information – which included the bestselling Invoice Withers on its roster – after he was heard taking part in in a riverside membership, The Sewer. Clarence Avant, who based the label, mentioned: “I assumed this man was going to be enormous” – and he was actually authentic.
The younger Rodriguez was not inquisitive about echoing Detroit’s celebrated Motown type, however was influenced by Dylan and aimed for the psychedelic/folk-rock market. His debut album, Chilly Truth (1970), started along with his drug anthem Sugar Man (“Sugar man, received’t you hurry … received’t you convey again all these colors to my desires”) and likewise included Internal Metropolis Blues, with its bleak, poetic view of his residence metropolis (“Happening a unclean inside metropolis facet highway I plotted, Insanity handed me by … ”). However the album didn’t promote within the US, and when the follow-up, Coming from Actuality (1971), proved equally uncommercial, the label determined to drop him.
He grew to become concerned in quite a lot of initiatives, from odd jobs and handbook work, to finding out philosophy at Wayne State College, the place, he mentioned, “way back to 1974 I used to be concerned in organising an American-Indian powwow”. He additionally ran for Detroit metropolis council and for mayor, talking out in opposition to poverty and police brutality, and saying: “We’re caught right here in Detroit between the cops and the crooks.”
Though he had no file label he continued to play and sing, and in 1979 and 1981 he labored in Australia, the place he had a following. In 2008 he instructed the Detroit Information: “All these years, I all the time thought-about myself a musician – however actuality occurred.”
He was, it appears, utterly unaware of the large impression he had in South Africa. Chilly Truth was launched there in 1971, with Coming from Actuality (retitled After the Truth) following in 1976. This rebellious album by a Mexican-Native American singer grew to become a soundtrack for younger white opponents of apartheid, after which for a wider viewers.
Stephen Segerman, the fan who tracked down Rodriguez, together with the journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, defined the extent of Rodriguez’s attraction. In 2005 Segerman instructed the Guardian: “Should you took a household from South Africa, a traditional, middle-class household, and regarded by their file assortment, you’d discover Abbey Street, Neil Younger’s Harvest, and Chilly Truth. It was a word-of-mouth success.”
Rodriguez continued performing till February 2020, when he gave his remaining live performance in Atlanta, Georgia.
He’s survived by his daughters, Sandra, Eva and Regan, and by his second spouse Konny Koskos, from whom he was separated.