'Searching for Sugar Man' tells story of Rodriguez, the unaware rock star

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In the early 1970's many South Africans fell in love with the music of a U.S. artist called Rodriguez. But they knew nothing about him.

And, as it turns out, he knew nothing about them either.

A new movie "Searching for Sugar Man" opening in Minnesota this week tells the bizarre story of what happened decades later when some fans went on a hunt for their idol.

In the early 1970s, the record collection of any serious South African music fan would contain The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, and the album with the song, "Sugar Man," by Rodriguez.

"He's hugely famous in South Africa," said South African rock legend Johnny Clegg. " 'Sugar Man' is like a standard song that any South African musician starts with."

Sugar Man is a desperate song, a lyrical plea by an addict to a drug dealer for temporary relief from the horrors of life. It arrived in South Africa on a bootleg cassette which soon spawned thousands of copies. "Sugar Man" and the other protest songs on the Rodriguez album "Cold Fact" became anthems to the growing numbers of white South Africans chafing under the brutal repression of Apartheid.

Part of Rodriguez appeal was his mystery. Film maker Malik Bendjelloul said no one knew much about him, other than he was dead.

Rodriguez
Rodriguez walking through a Detroit neighborhood. The musicians has lived in the same house in the city for 40 years. For much of that time he was unaware he was a superstar in South Africa.
Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

"There were different versions about how he died," said Bendjelloul. "The most famous version that most people had heard he that he had shot himself dead on stage. But there was another story that he had burned himself dead on stage, or that he had OD'd."

And that might have been it, except for two Rodriguez fans, who in the late 1980s decided to solve the Rodriguez mystery. Bendjelloul said they didn't have much to go on: basically just the album covers.

"They started to decipher the lyrics like a crossword puzzle," he said.

They found a reference to a girl from a Detroit suburb in one song. That clue led them to Rodriguez's producer. On the phone they learned how he signed Rodriguez after hearing him in a Detroit bar in 1969. He thought he had the next Bob Dylan, but the records never sold in the U.S.

Then Bendjelloul said they came to the biggest question of all.

"'How did he die?'" Bendjelloul said they asked. "And this producer said, 'What do you mean?' 'How did he die? It is said that he shot himself dead on stage! What happened?' And the producer said, 'No, I saw him this morning. He's alive."

Alive, and working construction, as he had been on and off since he had stepped away from the music business in frustration in the early 1970s. When Rodriguez heard the news of his fame in South Africa, he thought someone was pulling his leg.

"I had no idea about South Africa, that my music was being played over there," he said.

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He admits his attitude changed when he realized this wasn't a joke.

The South Africans set up a tour which quickly sold out. The musician unknown in his homeland traveled halfway round the world to be greeted by tens of thousands of hysterical fans. He's been back four more times since with similar results.

Malik Bendjelloul tells the story in his film "Searching for Sugar Man," which opened Sundance this year, and won the special Jury Prize, and the audience award for best foreign documentary.

Rodriguez's two albums have been re-released, and there's a soundtrack for the film too. While he is delighted by his late found fame, Rodriguez has taken it all in stride.

Where does Rodriguez hope this will take him now?

"Maybe to lunch, or something" he laughed.

Rodriguez didn't make anything for the hundreds of thousands of albums sold in South Africa, and he's given much of the money from the tours to family and friends. But he loves that people love his music.

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