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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

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

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

“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

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.

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