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Another serious contender for the title of "artist least likely to enjoy a major career re-estimation," the story of cult enigma Rodriguez is nonetheless characterized by recurring moments of renaissance, sprawled over four decades and as many continents. Hopelessly obscure in the United States during his formative years as Detroit's answer to Dylan via Motown and Bacharach, in South Africa the artist notoriously remained a nostalgic reminder of apartheid. As Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad discovered in 2005, young white South Africans who had been enlisted with the national service had embraced Rodriguez as their own counterculture Hendrix. However politically incorrect this must seem, their longing for the Vietnam era -- when smoking grass and listening to Rodriguez' thought-provoking lyrics was viewed as a means of rebelling against their own ultra-conservative government -- comes across as perfectly imaginable. As a consequence, much of his repertoire remains a big favorite of singalongs at an average "Braai," or barbecue party.
Born in Detroit in 1942, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez originated from a working-class background and dropped out of high school at the age of 16. Dividing his time between hanging around the university campus and playing assorted unconventional clubs and bars, he was introduced to Impact's Harry Balk, which led to the recording of his first single "I'll Slip Away" in 1967. When Balk took off for a career as a creative director at Motown, session players and ardent Rodriguez supporters Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore put him under the attention of Clarence Avant. About to set up his Sussex label, the latter was genuinely impressed with the artist's take on Detroit street life and supplied Theo-Coff Productions with sufficient means to cut an album's worth of material. Naturally, Theodore and Coffey took up keyboard and guitar duties, in addition to employing second wave Motown Funk Brothers for a rhythm section. Recording Rodriguez separately, they afterwards matched his voice and acoustic guitar to a sonic palette of various orchestrations and psychedelic effects. Being Sussex' first release, the resulting Cold Fact was a stone-cold folk-rock classic with an otherworldly feel to it.
Though industry-wise it was met with positive reviews, commercially the album gathered only dust. Theories as to why it didn't catch on in the climate of socially conscientious albums like Cloud Nine and What's Going on range from either not being played by underground radio and thus not meeting its intended public, or insufficient marketing by Buddah, with whom Sussex had a promotion and distribution deal. Though subsequently concentrating on Bill Withers, Avant offered Rodriguez the chance to record a follow-up in London with Steve Rowland (renowned for Family Dog's "Sympathy"). When 1971's Coming from Reality met a similar fate as its predecessor, the artist left the music business to enroll at university, in between working construction to support his family. End of story, you would think, but unbeknown to Rodriguez, he definitely wouldn't be left to reside in the "where are they now files".
Much to the artist's own surprise in 1979, he was requested to do some small theater shows Down Under, coinciding with the chart success of Australian re-releases of his albums. Fast forward to 1998, when Rodriguez was even more amazed to find vast amounts of mainstream acceptance. Apparently, some South African fans had invested quite a lot of effort in tracking down their long-lost hero. Their excitement to find him alive and well convinced Rodriguez to play arena-sized venues.
At last, in the 21st century, his genius was acknowledged across America and mainland Europe, his popularity re-sparked by hip-hop loving-crate diggers like David Holmes, whose mix compilation Come Get It, I Got It used Cold Fact's opening shot "Sugar Man" for its own eclectic musical journey. In 2008, Cold Fact became more easily available through a lovingly annotated re-release, followed in 2009 by Coming from Reality. To celebrate his umpteenth rediscovery, Rodriguez embarked upon a world tour, meeting old fans and a whole new generation of admirers. This renaissance was mirrored in the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man and companion compilation soundtrack, which followed two Rodriguez fans' quest to discover the fate of one of their most beloved artists. ~ Quint Kik
- Detroit, MI
- 10 Jul 1942
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