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Documentary unearths the story of obscure Detroit singer Rodriguez

for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

When it comes to music, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez is known by his surname.

And these days the Detroit singer-songwriter is known by more people than he's ever been in his life.

Thanks to the award-winning documentary "Searching For Sugar Man," Rodriguez has become a rock 'n' roll Cinderella story with worldwide recognition -- more than 30 years after he recorded his two albums. His music has resurfaced via 2009 reissues of those titles -- 1970's "Cold Fact" and 1971's "Coming From Reality" -- as well as a recently released soundtrack for the film. He's been making the circuit of film festivals and special engagements, including a recent stop at the United Nations in Manhattan, and he'll perform on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" on Aug. 14.

"It's pretty overwhelming," notes Rodriguez, 70, who says he's "from Detroit" but considers himself "a citizen of the world, like Socrates." "We've done the BBC, 150 NPR stations, Sirius radio. I'm doing the Newport Folk Festival. My song 'I Wonder' is the Song of the Month in the current issue of Esquire magazine; that's a 42 year old song -- how crazy is that?"

Dennis Coffey, the onetime Motown Funk Brother who co-produced "Cold Fact," says Rodriguez's current notoriety is long overdue.

"I guess there's a certain irony in it," Coffey says. "For years he's around Detroit and he doesn't get recognized. Nothing's changed. He still lives in the same place. But now he's playing all these places and people know who he is. It took a long time, but better late than never, I guess."


The Rodriguez legend that Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul related in "Waiting For Sugar Man," which opened July 27 in New York and Los Angeles and is rolling out in other markets into the fall, began modestly enough. The future musician was the sixth child born to working class Mexican immigrants who came to Detroit during the 20s. He was born and raised on Michigan Avenue, "just four or five blocks from the center of downtown" and developed an early sense of civic service. "I was going to be mayor of Detroit, city council or something," Rodriguez recalls. "I was going to be the state representative in District 21."

He learned to play music on "a family guitar," gravitating to the stylings of pioneer Charlie Christian and then to the protest songs of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil and Paul Simon, which provided a soundtrack while Rodriguez studied philosophy at Wayne State University -- a long matriculation that led him earning a degree in 1981.

"I'm a musico-politico," explains Rodriguez, who prefers to talk, expansively, about socio-political issues and cultural observations than about his life and songs. "I was there at the demonstrations at Warren Avenue and Woodward. The workers came out of the buildings, the office workers, everybody. They poured into the streets. The music spoke to that, and about that. That's what I wanted to write and sing about."

He released his first single, "I'll Slip Away," as Rod Riguez in 1967, but the big break, as it were, came three years later, courtesy of Coffey and fellow musician Mike Theodore. The two, who were familiar with Rodriguez already, checked out a performance at a local club called The Sewer and were impressed.

"He's singing and playing his guitar, and he's facing the wall. And I'm saying, 'Why's he facing the wall?!' " Coffey remembers with a laugh. "But you listened to his songs and we thought he was a great writer, almost like an urban Bob Dylan." Coffey and Theodore helped Rodriguez score a deal with New York-based Sussex Records, part of the Buddah Records family, and they recorded "Cold Fact" at Detroit's Tera-Shirma Studios during the late summer of 1969 with the late Funk Brother Bob Babbitt on bass and a string section from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

The songs were lushly arranged, pointedly topical and unabashedly Dylanesque -- Spin magazine described it as "lysergic gutter poetry" in 2009 -- but despite a favorable reception, including a four-star Billboard review, the album went nowhere. "We never doubted his talent," Coffey says, "and we couldn't understand why it just didn't happen." When "Coming from Reality," recorded in England with producer Steve Rowland, suffered the same fate, the deal was done and Rodriguez returned to Detroit, lapsing into obscurity as a construction worker.

"I left the music scene, but I didn't leave music," Rodriguez says now. "I realized that nothing beats reality." Then Rodriguez's reality became stranger than fiction.


After his albums were banned by the repressive South African government, they began to circulate via bootleg around the resistance underground, which embraced Rodriguez's populist anthems and character studies as rallying cries for their movement. "Cold Fact" even wound up going platinum there after being official released in 1991. Then, during the mid-70s, Australia's Blue Goose Music bought the rights to his catalog, releasing both albums and a compilation called "At His Best." "That was surprising," Rodriguez says, chuckling at his understatement.

The belated success took him to Australia for tours in 1979 and 1981, and he wound up finally playing in South Africa in 1998 after his daughter discovered a web site dedicated to Rodriguez. Meanwhile, another web site circulated a myth that Rodriguez was dead, having committed suicide on stage. Theodore, according to Coffey, quickly settled the matter.

"He sent an e.mail to the web site and said, 'He's not dead. He's living where he's always lived, off the Cass Corridor by Wayne State. He's still walking around the neighborhood,' " Coffey remembers.

Good things continued to quietly happen for Rodriguez: more tours, a documentary "Dead Men Don't Tour: Rodriguez in South Africa 1998" for that country's TV network, rapper Nas sampling Rodriguez's "Sugar Man" for the song "You're Da Man" on his platinum 2001 album "Illmatic." In 2006, meanwhile, "Searching For Sugar Man" director Bendjelloul discovered Rodriguez's story; he had left his Swedish TV job and was traveling around the world, "scouting for stories with a little video camera." In Capetown he heard about Rodriguez and immediately latched on to its potential as a film.

"I thought I'd never heard a better story in my life and would never hear a better story," Bendjelloul says. "It sounded like someone had written a script -- like 'Cinderella,' only 'Cinderella' didn't have such a good soundtrack.

"I would have been surprised if no one saw the beauty in this story. It wasn't just about this beautiful resurrection of man. this detective story, the story about one of the best albums that never was heard, the lost masterpiece. It's so much richer than that."


Bendjelloul began doing interviews for the film and eventually tracked down Rodriguez, who he says took some time to warm to the idea of the film. "I couldn't even pronounce his name when I met him," Rodriguez cracks now.

"It was hard to film him," acknowledges Bendjelloul, who set up the movie as two fans' search to prove that Rodriguez was, indeed, alive. "At the beginning he was reluctant to take part at all -- 'You don't need me. You have other guys. It's not that important.' And I was like, 'It's about YOU! Of course I need you.'

"But he's a musician, not a film star. He's a very private, shy person. He didn't particularly enjoy the act of shooting. But it turned out well. He was very kind to me."

And, Bendjelloul adds, Rodriguez's reticence, as well as his idiosyncratic but enormously interesting conversation style, worked to "Searching For Sugar Man's" advantage. "If you have a script and go by the script, you don't get what you want," explains the director, who made six trips to Detroit while making the film. "But if you listen to people, you see who they are. So it's even more beautiful because of the way he is. There's something so humble and unassuming and sensitive about him. You fall in love with him in a way -- I very much did."

Viewers of the film felt the same way. "Searching For Sugar Man" won a pair of prizes at this year's Sundance Film Festival and an Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and it was also an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

"I don't feel like I had anything to do with it, really," Rodriguez says. "It's Malik's masterpiece. I'm just pleased his getting the recognition he deserves."

The excitement around the film, of course, has generated attention for Rodriguez and his music. The "Searching For Sugar Man" soundtrack, comprised of songs from the two albums, has been well-received and he has U.S. dates booked into the fall,including a Nov. 2 homecoming at the Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac. Rodriguez is non-committal about future recording plans, though he acknowledges he's still writing, but Bendjelloul is hopeful his subject will take advantage of his newfound fame.

"He wrote a lot of songs he's never recorded, so my fingers are crossed. It would be fantastic," says the filmmaker, who's coming back to Detroit on July 30 for a screening and Q&A with Rodriguez at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak. "It's this strange little coda, you know? A lot of things are happening. His time is now."


* "Searching For Sugar Man" opens Aug. 10 exclusively at the Main Art in Royal Oak. Rated PG-13. Check listings for showtimes.

* Rodriguez performs Aug. 14 on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman.

* Rodriguez performs Nov. 2 at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call (248) 858-9333 or visit www.thecrofoot.com.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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