Rodriguez Discusses the documentary Searching For Sugarman

Musician Sixto Rodriguez is the focus of the new award winning documentary Searching For Sugarman, which tells of his seemingly failed music career in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that blossomed in South Africa (as well as Australia which isn’t covered in the film) where, unbeknownst to Rodriguez, he became a huge star. The documentary, by Malik Bendjelloul follows the unlikely story of ‘Sugar’ a Rodriguez fan who followed the legend and attempted to find the real story behind the musician’s rumored onstage suicide only to find him alive and working in Detroit. Meanwhile, Clarence Avant, the record producer who’s label folded, seems to have no idea about profits from the subsequent Rodriguez re-releases.  After producing two albums: Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, the singer now has a blossoming music career 40 years later and is on tour across the United States.

What was it like for you receiving the phone call the first time from South Africa (and Australia) and finding out that you are popular there, then shortly after flying out for a concert? That must’ve been intense coming from doing demolition work?

Oh, sheesh, yeah, it was epic!  About South Africa and Australia, I consider them virgin territory, they’re beautiful country’s, gorgeous people and they are very outgoing and my fan base in South Africa are Afrikaan. They’ve been down there 200 years and it was pretty amazing. I knew it was genuine because they knew the lyrics to my songs. It was Olympic man! You know what I mean, it was epic, really cool!

Your initial career in music in the 60’s-70’s was short. Aside from playing local bars in Detroit, what were some of your biggest moments? Did you play in any larger theaters?

Well, you know, not anything on this level. Pretty much bars and clubs and lounges in Detroit but I did pop around different places, but nothing as big as this.

Have you continued to write songs throughout your life?

Yes, yes I have but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m just following the film touring since January, 8 months.

You seem to have dealt with everything that’s happened to you very well, but do you have any animosity or regret?

Oh animosity is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like.  No, I think that all will be resolved.  It’s a long situation, there’s a lot of things people don’t know about this business and I don’t either so I’m pursuing a legal team.  I haven’t talked to Clarence Avant in 30 years. The thing is, Clarence gave me my start, he helped me when I was in dire straits, more than once, so I owe Clarence a lot, but after ‘74 I didn’t know him for the next 30 years so I didn’t know the second part of the story. I think it will all be resolved. But right now we’re just following the film.

Well with all this craziness that has happened in your life, how do you look at it? Is it fate that it worked out this way? How do you feel about it?

Oh jeez, now that I don’t know.  I’m gonna tell you I’m a very lucky, fortunate person but I had help getting here. I have to mention, Sony Pictures Classics, I have to mention Sony Legacy, I have to mention Light in the Attic, and my family and friends who absolutely helped so much and the curiosity of Sugar, that little spark. It’s Sugar, he’s the hero in this film and my daughter of course but I’m just saying it made the film happen.

A number of your songs have political and social messages to them and I know you actually ran for Mayor of Detroit at one time but now that you have the opportunity to speak to the world, what would you say about what’s going on? How much have things changed?

Well, I think national issues are the same, jobs, people looking for employment, the economy. In the 70’s I said that, the war in Syria, that’s a current issue, how about the war on the border of America and Mexico?  I heard 40,000 had been killed, 50 journalists killed in Mexico and you know they gotta fix it, that’s how I feel.

I had a chance to see you perform twice recently, first at Guild Hall for the Hampton’s Film Festival and then at the Newport folk Festival and I’ve seen a number of celebrities and musicians react to your story and your music. Who have you heard from and what were some of these experiences like?

Yeah, Jackson Browne was in the audience at Newport, in New York Bob Geldoff, Alec Baldwin, and Mike Moore. I’m not name dropping but it’s catching their support.  They are jumping into this and showing it at their festivals, so yeah I’m happy with the movie, it’s getting me more calls (laughs).

I know the rapper Nas sampled “Sugar Man” on Stillmatic back in the day which is kind of interesting.

Yeah, it was early in the career, maybe about 8 years ago or something.  Oh, about the film, the climax of the movie is ’98 but I want to mention that I met Malik (director of Searching For Sugarman) in ’08 and I was reissued in ’08 as well so I always want to make that distinction.

In your live shows I’ve seen you do a few covers of songs like “Only Have Eyes For You” who are some of your favorite musicians?

Oh geez, you know as I research my mind about the kind of music I like I pretty much listen to everything, obscure singers like Johnny Hayes, certainly Jimmy Reed whose not obscure, but those kind of early singers, you know, I’m a solid 70 (years old), I’ve done the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s and I’m working on the 10’s. That music from those eras pretty much stays with me. There are so many genres of music I like. I used the protest song as a vehicle to describe social issues, so my focus is more like that: bringing up stuff about society, police brutality, those harder issues which don’t go quite too well on middle radio, so maybe I made it hard on myself.

Your music is often compared to Dylan and Donavan. I just wanted to know how you feel about those guys and if you’ve heard from them at all.

Bob Dylan is the Shakespeare of rock and roll, he’s written thousands of songs and I met Donavan at Sundance. I saw him perform and I got a little film clip with him. I think Donavan is more Donavan now than he’s ever been (laughs), all this development, you know Dylan is too. It was these voices that helped us get through those 60’s and  70’s eras so the comparison is sweet, they are sweethearts to me.

Finally, I loved your recent performance on Late Night with David Letterman. It was really fantastic with the horns and the strings, it was amazing, what was that like?

The thing is I [had] got a 25 piece orchestra behind me and so the performance was going to be powerful without me (laughs). I just said I was going to do a rhythm section. I didn’t have anything to do with it, I didn’t have anything to do with Malik’s movie either, I’m in the movie with him, I didn’t tell him who to choose to interview, what to say, where to go you know, they did real well with it and I’m really happy for him now. It’s his first film [and] out of 10,000 entries to Sundance he got the People’s Award and People’s Choice award and World Documentary.

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About Tim Needles

Tim Needles is an artist, photographer, humorist, and writer from Long Island, NY. His writing and art work has been seen in multiple exhibitions and publications around New York as well as the Photographer’s Forum, French Photo, the New York Times, and LI Pulse magazine. He is also an educator and currently teaches art and film at Smithtown, NY and as an Education Leader for Adobe. He was recently the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Award in Washington DC and serves as the director of Strictly Students, a non-for-profit group for media and education. His work can be seen on his website: www.timneedles.com
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