For the last 30 years, Sixto Rodriguez had no idea that his 1970’s album Cold Fact was actually more popular than The Beatles’ Abbey Road in South Africa.
He had become a musical legend on another continent, while living his life in the city he was born and raised — Detroit. He had never hit music stardom in the U.S., so he focused his sights elsewhere.
He demolishes and rebuilds buildings for a living, he writes and plays music on the guitar, he’s run for two political offices in Michigan, he has a degree in philosophy, and he was even a wonderful father, according to his daughter. A true renaissance man.
For years, there had been rumors that he died from various causes, but he has recently been rediscovered in America. After years of searching for him, an award-winning documentary about him called “Searching for Sugar Man” was made. It released in New York City and Los Angeles on June 27, and today he is in New York, because he’s been asked on The David Letterman Show.
“They’re going to have an orchestra for me,” says Rodriguez excitedly, like he still can’t believe his newly found fame.
He says it was only four years ago when he was confronted by the film’s director Malik Benjedlloul, about making the documentary.
“I resisted,” says the 70-year-old with long black hair. “I was skeptical, but he came to Detroit six times.”
He says he did not even imagine he was ever so popular in South Africa, but in trying to understand it, he feels his political songs speaking out against government repression related to the people there.
“The soldiers would exchange cassettes, and it surfaced that way,” says Rodriguez about the stories he heard. He says his cassettes were also bootlegged all the way to Australia.
Although he says he appreciates all forms of music, he says he usually writes protest songs because he gets to talk about social issues — one of his other passions.
“Knowledge is nothing,” says Rodriguez. “It’s what you do with that knowledge. You have to make yourself heard.”
He says his parents from San Luis Potosi, Mexico always encouraged reading and education, and he always taught his three daughters to act out with their knowledge through example.
His daughter, Sandra, says she remembers him running for Michigan state representative and as mayor of the city of Detroit.
“We made signs saying, ‘Vote for Rodriguez,’” she says.
She says even though her parents divorced when she was only 5, her father could not stand being away from them for more than three days, and would always include them in everything.
“He also campaigned with Cesar Chavez against pesticides…He’s done a lot of amazing things…He’s a musico-politico.”
This is more and more evident the longer one talks to the man in black. He can’t seem to talk five minutes about himself without sharing his concern about the state of the U.S.
“Young people should get more involved in the electoral process,” he says, before continuing to talk about his love for music.
“I have been chasing music since I was 16,” says Rodriguez about the days he played in basements and bars, and then he smiles so big, all you can see are white teeth. “We do music for the girls…for the recognition, but we also do it because it’s fun…it’s a living art.”
After decades of being unknown in the U.S., Rodriguez has finally been recognized here.
Would he change anything if he could go back in time?
“I’m happy that it turned out like this,” says the philosopher at heart. “There is only one direction, and it’s forward. It’s never too early or too late.”
“Sugar Man” was featured on Rodriguez’ album, Cold Fact.