Gone are the days of listening to a song over and over again, to catch the lyrics if liner notes were not included with the album. Now, with a little bit of Google searching, you can find out almost everything you want to know about your favourite artist (and sometimes more than you ever wanted to know – we’re looking at you Miley Cyrus).
But what if you couldn’t? What if there was an artist who had a huge impact on you, your generation, or even your country, and you couldn’t find out anything about them? What if they didn’t even know they were famous?
That’s the strange story of a man named Sixto Rodriguez. You might have heard of Rodriguez from the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugarman.
Born in Detroit in 1942, Rodriguez was an American folk musician who has been compared to the likes of Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens.
Rodriguez originally made two albums, Cold Fact in 1970, and Coming from Reality in 1971. Due to low sales, he never recorded a third studio album. Rodriguez returned to a career of construction, cleaning, and maintenance in his native Detroit. But, fate wasn’t done with Sixto.
Surprise Number 1: Australia
While Rodriguez was virtually unknown in America, copies of Cold Fact made their way to Australia where they found a more receptive audience. In the late 70s, almost a decade after he believed that his music career had failed, Australian promoters reached out to Rodriguez, inviting him to tour there.
In 1979, Rodriguez played in Australia to crowds as large as 15,000—comparable to seeing the Winnipeg Jets play a sold out home game at the MTS Centre. The results of the Australia tour were made into a live album in 1981, called Rodriguez Alive. Rodriguez travelled back to Australia for a second tour in 1981, and returned home to Detroit afterward to lead a quiet and unassuming life—unlike many artists from the 70s who are now on their 5t or 6th comeback tour.
It would be reasonable to assume at this point that this was the end of Rodriguez’s musical career, but the story doesn’t stop here.
Surprise Number 2: South Africa
Let’s start with a bit of History 101 here. From 1948 to 1994, South Africa had a system of racial segregation known as apartheid. To condemn the racist policies of apartheid, many countries halted all commerce with South Africa, which isolated the country from the international community.
It was in this unique set of circumstances that something fascinating happened. Copies of Rodriguez’s albums made their way to South Africa, and they were incredibly well received by the general public. The albums were reprinted locally, and it is estimated that a half-million copies were sold, equating to multi-platinum status. It seemed that every home had his music, and Rodriguez and his album Cold Fact were considered icons on par with the Beatles and other famous artists of the time.
Rodriguez’s music inspired a generation of musicians in South Africa, and many of his songs served as anthems for the anti-apartheid movement. Part of this success in South Africa may have been owed in part to the mystery that surrounded Rodriguez—no one knew anything about him.
Fantastic rumours circulated about the death of Rodriguez, based only on wild speculation (proving that random celebrity death gossip began long before social media). Lacking any evidence to the contrary, many people accepted these rumours. A few people though, did ask questions, and when the internet developed, websites were devoted to Rodriguez. He knew nothing about his success in South Africa until his daughter stumbled upon a website devoted to him in 1997. He continued to live in the same humble Detroit home that he’d lived in for decades.
To put this into perspective, imagine finding out that the nice older guy living next door to you is actually a multi-platinum musician in North Korea.
This discovery led to the second wild adventure for Rodriguez, detailed in the award-winning documentary Waiting for Sugarman). The first South African tour took place in 1998, where Rodriguez played six shows to thousands of fans.
This new resurrection has catapulted Rodriguez back into the spotlight, leading to more tours, live albums, and a re-release of his original two albums.
It took almost 30 years, but Rodriguez is finally finding the musical success he had hoped for when he started his career in the 70s. It just goes to show, the world is an incredibly crazy place, and you should never give up on your dreams. Music never dies, and neither did Rodriguez.