Sixto Rodriguez, the singer-songwriter best known for the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, died Tuesday at the age of 81.
Be death was announced on his official website: “It is with great sadness that we at Sugarman.org announce that Sixto Diaz Rodriguez passed away today. We send our heartfelt condolences to his daughters – Sandra, Eva and Regan – and to his entire family.”
A cause of death was not given.
As Rodriguez, the Detroit-born artist developed an idiosyncratic mix of denominational folk and psychedelic soul on two albums that he released in the early 1970s but received little attention. Rodriguez retired from music to take up blue-collar jobs in his hometown, but those records found an unlikely audience in South Africa and garnered him a cult following, peaking in the early 2010s with the release of Searching for Sugar Man.
Simultaneously celebrating and debunking the myths that have sprung up in the absence of concrete facts, the film brought Rodriguez to a broad international audience for the first time. After winning the Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Searching for Sugar Man eventually became a word of mouth hit Awarding of the Oscars for documentary. In its review, The Times called the film “an indelible portrait of an artist who was given a second chance at fame”.
Following the film’s success, Rodriguez returned to live performances, appearing on The Late Show With David Letterman and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and performing in concerts into the late 2010s.
Sixto Diaz Rodriguez was born on July 10, 1942 in Detroit to Mexican immigrants. He began playing guitar as a teenager and released the single “I’ll Slip Away” on Impact Records in 1967; The record was credited to “Rod Riguez”. A music producing couple, Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, saw Rodriguez perform at a local club called The Sewer and brought him to Sussex Records, a subsidiary of the Buddha gum label, founded by Clarence Avant, a former Motown executive.
Rodriguez recorded his debut Cold Fact in 1970 with Theodore and Coffey producing. Equal parts smooth soul and plaintive folk, “Cold Fact” featured songs like the trippy “Sugar Man,” which would have sounded right at home alongside Jose Feliciano, Stevie Wonder or Cat Stevens on AM radio – the groove was funky enough to being sampled by Nas on his track You’re Da Man in 2001 – but Sussex failed to pique interest in the album. Rodriguez traveled to London to record the follow-up, Coming From Reality, but just months after its release in 1971, Sussex released him from his contract.
Back home in Detroit, Rodriguez retired from music. While earning his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Wayne State University, he worked in the construction industry – receiving his honorary doctorate from there in 2013 – and raised a family. He then worked as a political activist, fighting against police brutality and speaking up for the poor. He ran for mayor, state senate, and city council, but never won a race.
As Rodriguez pursued a life after music, “Cold Fact” found its way to Australian audiences. Concert promoters invited Rodriguez to perform in the country in 1979, and the musician was surprised to find a large crowd awaiting him. In 1981 he returned to Australia and performed occasionally with politically minded rockers Midnight Oil. At the time, Rodriguez viewed these performances as “strange coincidences,” but they laid the groundwork for a cult that would thrive in the decades that followed.
Rodriguez’s music also attracted fans in South Africa, who found his socially progressive songs hot in the apartheid era. In the absence of hard facts about the singer-songwriter – very little has been written about him in America, let alone South Africa – fans have speculated about his history, inventing such outlandish stories as Rodriguez’s death by suicide on stage or from a drug overdose.
In the late 1990s, Cape Town music journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom and record shop owner Stephen Segerman set out in search of Rodriguez’s fate and launched a website called The Great Rodriguez Hunt. Rodriguez’s daughter Eva found out about the site, which led to the musician playing a few shows in South Africa in 1998. The website and shows sparked a surge that continued when boutique indie label Light in the Attic reissued both of Rodriguez’s albums in 2008.
It was around this time that filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul met Segerman and realized that chasing Rodriguez laid the groundwork for a great film. Bendjelloul structured his film as a detective story, which was what made it so appealing. “What sets ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ apart,” The Times observed in 2012, “is the way the filmmaker keeps a sense of mystery in the narrative.”
The film won the Documentary Oscar at the 65th Annual Academy Awards in 2013, capping a near-endless list of qualifying awards since its premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
“Searching for Sugar Man” was the rare music documentary that found a wide audience. The Dave Matthews Band covered “Sugar Man” in concerts in 2013-14 — Matthews said Rodriguez was “one of my heroes as a kid” — and beach boy Brian Wilson brought Rodriguez on tour. In addition to television commercials, Rodriguez has appeared at Coachella and England’s Glastonbury Festival.
After suffering a stroke in the late 2010s, Rodriguez lost his ability to sing and play the guitar. In 2019 he was able to make music again, but due to the COVID-19 shutdown several performances planned for 2020 were cancelled. In July 2023 he was on stage at a concert for his 81st birthday.
Speaking to the Detroit News in 2008, Rodriguez summed up his journey: “It’s been a great odyssey. You know, I’ve always considered myself a musician over the years. But the reality has come.”