The Strange Tale of Rodriguez: Detroit Musician Becomes a Star in South Africa … Without Knowing It

Rock and pop musicians, as we all remember from the end of This is Spinal Tap, sometimes find fame in the least expected countries. Tufnel, St. Hubbins, and Smalls found themselves embraced in Japan, a country that has since become the go-to cliché for the final resting place of fan enthusiasm for American and English has-beens and never-weres. But what to say about a performer who becomes famous specifically in South Africa? It happened to the singer-songwriter Rodriguez, the Detroit-bred son of American immigrants whose 1970 and 1971 albums Cold Fact and Coming from Reality provided the soundtracks for thousands upon thousands of South African adolescences. His poetic protest songs seemed to hit home with a generation fed up with apartheid society, and you can only imagine what a loss they must have felt upon hearing that their bard of choice had fatally set himself aflame onstage.

Both the South African popularity and the rumors of self-immolation came as a surprise to the man himself, who had remained living in Detroit as a student and demolition laborer since the seventies. He’s since enjoyed occasional bursts of rediscovery, like the one that sent him on his first South African tour in 1998, but only now, at age seventy, has he attained the kind of recognition that his dedicated listeners would insist he deserved long ago. This owes to the efforts of the young Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, whose iPhone-shot documentary Searching for Sugar Man opened the 2012 Sundance Film Festival with Rodriguez’s story. You can watch its trailer at the top of this post, and a recent 60 Minutes segment featuring Bendjelloul and Rodriguez himself just above. YouTube also hosts many Rodriguez performances, including this rendition of his signature song “Sugar Man” performed at the Triple Door in Seattle.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.



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  • http://mondonville.wordpress.com/ felix

    What is amazing about this film is how it ignores how popular Rodriguez was in Australia in the 1970′s.He had 2 top ten hits (and a no 1 hit) and both his albums went gold and platinum.Almost every teenager had a Rodriguez album on their shelves and yet the recognition he received in Australia is hardly mentioned in this film.Rodriguez also knew about this (as record company execs have told me) and was quite impressed by the attention

  • Karen Sand

    I lived in Hawaii all through the 70′s. We had lots of friends from Australia that would come to Hawaii. I also worked at a local club while attending college. I am certain I recall seeing the album Cold Fact and heard Rodriguiz music!
    At 59….. Love his music!

  • Becky

    My goodness! How moving and inspiring! Especially touching when his daughter says she hopes he buys himself new glasses.

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