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Tom Tangney

Live in studio: Meet the star of 'Searching for Sugarman'

Sixto Rodriguez performs "Inner City Blues" off of his first (1969/70) album live in the 97.3 KIRO FM studio for Tom Tangney.

A new film about a long forgotten folk rocker is causing something of a sensation with its incredible story of secret fame.

I suppose there's a chance you could see a better documentary than "Searching for Sugarman" this year, but I can just about guarantee you won't see one with a better story to tell.

Like countless singer/songwriters before him, Detroit's Sixto Rodriguez released a couple of albums back in the early 70's that, despite good reviews, flopped commercially and then he disappeared from the scene. Rodriguez's fate seemed sealed, just another no-hit wonder.

Unbeknownst to him, however, he'd become a superstar halfway around the world-in South Africa.

"Searching for Sugarman" documents a South African record store owner's quest to find out, 30 years later, who exactly Rodriguez was and what had ever happened to him, this performer who many South Africans credit for contributing to "the soundtrack of their lives."

The legend was that he had committed suicide in spectacular fashion, on stage. But whether he had shot himself or doused himself in gasoline and burned to death was still in dispute. The only thing the longtime fan knew for sure was that he was dead. Only he wasn't.

Rodriguez had been quietly working construction jobs and doing other manual labor for decades. When he was finally contacted and told he was bigger than Elvis in South Africa, he at first thought it was a prank. But eventually, he was convinced to travel there where he was met by adoring fans and treated like pop royalty.

"Has there ever been a more thrilling concert?" the film's director Malik Bendjelloul asks me rhetorically. "We have a whole 5,000 (person) theater who believes that this man is dead. And he is resurrected in front of them. And then we have Rodriguez, who thinks there's going to be 20 people in the audience and he has like six times sold- out stadiums."

The documentary has great footage from that intial concert in Capetown. When Rodriguez starts singing his very first number, the 5000-strong audience chants it along with him. He seems momentarily stunned. Here's a guy who, in the United States, never sang in a venue bigger than a club, and now he's hearing a stadium full of fans sing his songs along with him, songs that they all know by heart.

Rodriguez tells me South Africa wasn't even on his radar back when he wrote his lyrical protest songs. But clearly they resonated with young Afrikaaners who were also chafing at the conservative culture of the times. He says meeting his fans there now can turn quite personal. "This one soldier told me 'we made love to your music, we made war to your music.' Those kind of enlightenments were very moving, very rewarding," he says.

Rodriguez just shakes his head in amazement at this unexpected rediscovery late in life. And he can only speculate as to why all those rumors of his death took hold.

"I'm no mystery, I wasn't lost. I knew exactly where I was," he laughs.

"It's really like Cinderella," exclaims Bendjelloul. "But it's better than Cinderella because it has a better soundtrack."

But just like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, Rodriguez then returns home to the same modest house he's lived in for the past 40 years.

Rodriguez is now 70-years-old, and has been back to South Africa four times in the past decade. He's also big in Australia and New Zealand. But he remains virtually unknown in this country. Here's hoping this new film helps change that.

Tom Tangney on KIRO Radio

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About the Author

Tom Tangney is the co-host of The Tom and Curley Show on KIRO Radio and resident enthusiast of...everything. As the film and media critic on the Morning News on KIRO Radio, he espouses his love for books, movies, TV, art, pop culture, politics, sports, and Husky football.


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