Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez, aka 'Searching for Sugar Man,' Dies at 81

August 09, 2023, 7:45 AM by  Allan Lengel

Detroiter Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, who came to know true international fame late in life with the Academy Award-winning documentary "Searching for Sugar Man" in 2012, died Tuesday at age 81.

His death was announced on his official website:

It is with great sadness that we at announce that Sixto Diaz Rodriguez has passed away earlier today. We extend our most heartfelt condolences to his daughters – Sandra, Eva and Regan – and to all his family. Rodriguez was 81 years old. May His Dear Soul Rest In Peace.

Rodriguez suffered a stroke in February and underwent surgery shortly after.

In the early 1970s, Rodriguez released two blues-folk-rock albums. But his music career went nowhere in the states. So, he supported his three daughters with manual labor jobs. 

A graduate of Wayne State University, he ran unsuccessfully in Detroit for city council, mayor and state representative.

The movie showed how his music, including the song "Sugar Man," had become a huge hit in South Africa, but he had no clue. His music depicted a hard life and a skeptical view of authority and romance, and was a big hit in the anti-apartheid movement.

The movie showed how two South African fans, Stephen Segerman, a Cape Town record store owner, and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, attempted to find out whether rumors of Rodriguez's death were true.

The New York Times reported that Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul in 2006 quit his job and traveled to Africa in search of a story for a movie. In Cape Town he met Segerman, who in 1997 had created a website, The Great Rodriguez Hunt, hoping to gather information about the singer. Bendjelloul ended up interviewing Rodriguez and telling about the search in the film.

Bendjelloul committed suicide in 2014 in Stockholm at age 36. 

Before being discovered in South Africa, a handful of copies of Rodriguez’s 1970 debut LP, Cold Fact, reached Australia months after the album bombed in America, Rolling Stone reported in 2013.

Rolling Stone also reported:

By the late 1970s, Australian concert promoters tracked down Rodriguez in Detroit. He arrived in Australia with his two teenage daughters for a 15-date tour in early 1979. “He was just stunned by what we put together for him,” promoter Michael Coppel told Billboard at the time. “He had never played a concert before, just bars and clubs.” He played to 15,000 people in Sydney, almost as many fans as Rod Stewart drew a few weeks earlier. “The man himself seemed almost embarrassed onstage,” noted Billboard. “He spoke no more than a dozen short lines throughout each show. When returning to the stage for an encore at his first Sydney show, he mumbled emotionally to his audience, ‘Eight years later . . . and this happens. I don’t believe it.'”

A live album from the tour was released in 1981, right around the time he came back for a second tour. This time he shared the bill with Midnight Oil at some gigs. “I thought it was the highlight of my career,” Rodriguez says today. “I had achieved that epic mission. Not much happened after that. No calls or anything.”

Rodriguez was able to capitalize on the film and revive his musical career. He played in Detroit at places like the The Old Miami and Masonic Temple and at concert venues around the globe. 

In 2013, he was given an honorary doctoral degree from Wayne State University, where he had earned a bachelor's degree in 1981. 

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