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Rodriguez, ‘Sugar Man’ singer with an aura of mystery, dies at 81

Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter who dropped out of the music scene in the early 1970s after recording a pair of folk-rock albums that hardly sold any copies, only to discover decades later that he had become a music legend in South Africa — a revelation that inspired an Oscar-winning documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man,” and brought him back to the stage after years spent working in construction — died Aug. 8. He was 81.

His death, at home in Detroit, was confirmed by his daughter Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy, who said he had suffered two strokes in recent years.

The singer and guitarist, a son of Mexican immigrants, recorded under the single name Rodriguez and made his full-length debut with “Cold Fact” (1970), 32 minutes of propulsive, brooding, psychedelic-tinged folk rock. The album featured idiosyncratic songs like “Sugar Man,” an eerie portrait of a drug dealer and his clients; “Hate Street Dialogue,” an anti-authoritarian anthem addressing police brutality; and “I Wonder,” an up-tempo love song in which he sang of “the love you can’t find” and “the loneliness that’s mine.”

The record flopped in the United States, never cracking the Billboard album chart. When his 1971 follow-up, “Coming From Reality,” fared just as poorly, he put his music career on hold, taking jobs in home renovation, roofing and demolition to support his family in Detroit. On the side he studied philosophy, embarked on long-shot campaigns for mayor and city council, and walked the city’s Cass Corridor neighborhood, where he was sometimes seen with a guitar case slung over his shoulder, wearing dark glasses and his signature all-black outfit, thick dark hair running down to his shoulders.

For years, that seemed to be the end of the story, as Rodriguez came to represent — at least to those few who knew him — yet another music industry parable of unrealized promise and overlooked talent.

Yet halfway around the world, he had become a folk hero and music superstar, at least as popular as the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley. His records were embraced by young listeners in South Africa, including anti-apartheid activists who sang along to rebellious lyrics like “The pig and hose have set me free / I’ve tasted hate street’s hanging tree” and “This system’s gonna fall soon / To an angry young tune.”

“Every revolution needs an anthem,” recalled Craig Bartholomew Strydom, a South African music journalist, in a 2012 interview with the Economist. “ ‘Cold Fact’ was South Africa’s.”

Rodriguez’s popularity was only amplified by the mystery surrounding his short-lived recording career. In the pre-internet age, rumors proliferated that he had set himself on fire during a concert, died of a drug overdose, joined a terrorist group, murdered a girlfriend or been institutionalized. Two fans who were eager to figure out what had happened to the singer — Strydom and Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, a Cape Town record store owner nicknamed after the Rodriguez song — tracked him down in the 1990s, eventually persuading him to perform in post-apartheid South Africa.

Their quest inspired the 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” directed by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who had met Segerman on a visit to South Africa. “This was the greatest, the most amazing, true story I’d ever heard, an almost archetypal fairy tale,” Bendjelloul told the New York Times upon the film’s release. (The filmmaker died by suicide in 2014.) “It’s a perfect story. It has the human element, the music aspect, a resurrection and a detective story.”

Just a few years earlier, the Seattle record label Light in the Attic had reissued Rodriguez’s two studio albums. The documentary brought him far greater exposure: He was featured on “60 Minutes,” invited to perform on the “Late Show With David Letterman” and headlined venues including Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London.

While he had once performed with his back to the audience, he embraced the recognition, albeit after some initial resistance. “I’ve had such an ordinary life,” he told The Washington Post in 2012, explaining that he was initially skeptical of appearing in the film, preferring to let friends and family members speak on his behalf. When the movie won the Academy Award for best documentary feature, he wasn’t at the ceremony to celebrate, later saying that he was afraid he would take attention away from the director.

“I was asleep when it won,” Rodriguez told Rolling Stone, “but my daughter Sandra called to tell me. I don’t have TV service anyway.”

For decades, he lacked not just a television but a computer, car and phone. He had lived since 1976 at a modest Detroit home that he bought for $50 at a government auction, and liked to say that there were only “three basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. Once you get down to that level, everything else is icing.”

It was an anti-consumerist philosophy that he seemed to express in the words of his first single, “I’ll Slip Away” (1967), which he released under the name Rod Riguez: “And you can keep your symbols of success / Then I’ll pursue my own happiness / And you can keep your clocks and routines / Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams.”

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, who got his first name because he was his parents’ sixth child, was born in Detroit on July 10, 1942. His mother died in childbirth four years later. His father was “a pick-and-shovel man,” as he put it, a manual laborer who also played the violin.

According to his daughter, an uncle gave him his first set of guitar strings when Rodriguez was 15, telling him, “You can make a lot of money with this.”

By his early 20s, Rodriguez was immersed in the protest-driven folk music of the 1960s, listening to singer-songwriters including Bob Dylan, Barry McGuire and Phil Ochs. He was also writing music of his own.

“We thought he was like the inner-city poet,” session guitarist Dennis Coffey, who co-produced Rodriguez’s first album, said in the documentary. Steve Rowland, who produced Rodriguez’s second record and also produced songs for Jerry Lee Lewis and Peter Frampton, described him in the film as “a wise man, a prophet,” adding that he had “never worked with anyone as talented.”

After he was discovered performing in a Detroit nightclub called the Sewer, Rodriguez signed with the newly launched Sussex label, led by music executive Clarence Avant. Copies of his first album made their way not only to South Africa, but also to Australia, where the record was championed by a Sydney radio DJ and became a collector’s item, reportedly selling at record stores for more than $300.

News of his success reached him when he was contacted by a pair of Australian concert promoters, who persuaded him to come out of musical retirement and tour the continent in 1979. “The man himself seemed almost embarrassed on stage,” Billboard magazine reported, “and spoke no more than a dozen short lines throughout each show. When returning to stage for an encore at his first Sydney show, he mumbled emotionally to the audience: ‘Eight years … and this happens. I don’t believe it.’”

The tour led to an Australian live album, “Alive” (1981), which coincided with a second tour through the country. “I thought it was the highlight of my career,” Rodriguez told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I had achieved that epic mission. Not much happened after that. No calls or anything.”

Rodriguez received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1981. Around that same time, he married Konny Koskos. They were still married when he died but had been separated for at least two decades, according to his daughter. His first marriage, to Rayma Rawa, ended in divorce.

In addition to his wife and his daughter Sandra, survivors include two other daughters, Eva and Regan Rodriguez, all from his first marriage; a brother; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

For all his success overseas, Rodriguez never received a royalty check for the estimated half-million record he sold in South Africa. His label boss, Avant, was dismissive when asked in the documentary why Rodriguez had never profited from those sales.

“You think it’s something I’m going to worry about, a 1970 contract? If you do, you’re out of your mind,” Avant said with an expletive. (Interviewed by the Times after the film’s release, the executive was more measured. “I had nothing to do with where the money went,” he said. “I don’t know who the South Africans were paying, and I don’t know who had my foreign rights.”)

By all accounts, Rodriguez was more interested in making up for lost time than in pursuing lost royalties. He performed some 250 concerts in the last 10 years, and was preparing to make another album when his record deal fell through about five years ago, according to his daughter Sandra.

“When it didn’t happen,” she said in a phone interview, “he just basically collapsed,” suffering his first stroke.

“You can’t linger too much on your decisions, so yes, I chose to face reality,” Rodriguez told the Times in 2012, looking back on his decision to leave behind music and go into construction. “I’m a family person, and you make those choices. You have to embrace it, my father used to say. You don’t hold it over there, where it can hurt you. There’s no shame in hard work.”

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