JOHANNESBURG — The story of Sixto Rodriguez, the greatest protest singer and songwriter that most people never heard of, is a real-life fairytale with a Hollywood finale.
In his latest incarnation, the guitarist has unwittingly become a champion for the rights of wronged musicians.
The Detroit construction worker whose albums flopped in the United States in the 1970s wants to know what happened to royalties in South Africa, where he unknowingly was elevated to rock star status.
While Rodriguez toiled in the Motor City, white liberals thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean burdened by the horrors of the apartheid regime were inspired by his songs protesting the Vietnam War, racial inequality, abuse of women and social mores.
Songs composed half a century ago that some equate to “inner-city poetry” still are relevant today: Like his poke at the pope’s stance on birth control, and his plaints about corrupt politicians and bored housewives.
In South Africa, they were massive and enduring hits that still sell today, considered standards like Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” according to Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, a Cape Town record store owner whose nickname comes from the Rodriguez song “Sugarman.”
“He’s more popular than Elvis” in South Africa, Segerman said in an interview.
For decades, Rodriguez remained in the dark. Now the heartwarming documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” which tells of two South Africans’ mission to seek out the fate of their musical hero, has been nominated for an Oscar.
The film by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul and the story behind it have proved transformative for several people, not least Rodriguez, who is on a worldwide tour that has included New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Even after the extent of his fame was brought home to him when he first toured South Africa to sold-out concerts 15 years ago, Rodriguez had said he had no interest in pursuing the money, holding true to his lyrics “And you can keep your symbols of success, Then I’ll pursue my own happiness.”
Now, he is not so sure: that people were profiting off his music doesn’t sit well with him. He plans to seek legal resolution for the lost royalties, though he’s not certain where to start.
“I think omission is a sin. Withholding evidence is unethical to say the least, but I’ll resolve that,” Rodriguez said in an interview with The Associated Press in a Detroit bar, months before the documentary was nominated. “These were licensed releases, not just bootlegs. It’s in the process, but I have to get to a position to see what jurisdiction I approach. I’m ignorant. How do you do this?”
How, indeed? South Africa was under U.N. economic and cultural sanctions from the 1960s. While some Rodriguez songs were banned by the apartheid regime and many bootlegged copies were made on tapes and later CDs, three local labels reproduced Rodriguez’s two albums under license, the 1970 “Cold Fact” and 1972 “Coming from Reality: After the Fact.”
No one knows how many sold. In the documentary, Robbie Mann of RPM Records estimates that, under his father, the South African company sold “maybe half a million copies.” Some estimate more than 1 million were sold in all.
South Africans interviewed in the documentary said they sent royalty checks to the United States, to the now-defunct Sussex Records label of former Motown executive Clarence Avant. The Hollywood record producer starts off emotional in the documentary, calling Rodriguez “my boy” and “greater than Bob Dylan.”
But he’s short-tempered when asked about the royalties, saying he cannot be expected to remember details of a 1970s contract and album that he suggests didn’t sell more than three copies in the United States.
The 81-year-old Avant, who could not be reached for this article, still owns the rights to the music and is now being paid for them by Light In The Attic Records, which gives a new life to old recordings, according to Segerman, who acts as an unofficial publicist for Rodriguez. He said 2008 and 2009 releases were the first time Rodriguez was paid royalties.
Now you can buy Rodriguez songs on iTunes, and the documentary soundtrack released by Light In The Attic in conjunction with Sony Legacy.
Segerman said Rodriguez has “created a whole new consciousness about robbing an artist.” People coming into his Malibu Vinyl shop and sending him emails say, “I want to buy it, not download it for free, but please, I want to make sure he’s going to get the money.”
“Here’s the irony: His music came into South Africa through bootlegging but it’s South Africa that’s given him the voice to say ‘This is wrong!’ and people get that, they understand now.”
He said at least 200,000 copies of both albums have sold in the last year or so.
But Rodriguez appears untouched by the money, Segerman said. Now in his 70s with failing eyesight, Rodriguez continues to live in the same old house he’s occupied for decades in Detroit, and gives most of the money away to relatives and friends, said Segerman.
In South Africa in the old days, his fans isolated by sanctions and censorship believed Rodriguez was as famous at home as he was in their country. They heard stories that the musician had died dramatically: He’d shot himself in the head onstage in Moscow; he’d set himself aflame and burned to death before an audience someplace else; he’d died of a drug overdose, was in a mental institution, was incarcerated for murdering his girlfriend.
In 1996, in the newly liberated South Africa, Segerman and journalist Carl Bartholomew-Strydom set out separately to find out the truth and then got together to solve the mystery. Nearly two years of dead ends finally led to Detroit, where they found Rodriguez — sane, free and working on construction sites in his hometown.
“It’s rock-and-roll history now. Who would-a thought?” Rodriguez said, struggling to explain his improbable tale.
Rodriguez said he wasn’t wallowing in self-pity after his music career fizzled — he just “went back to work.”
He raised a family that includes three daughters, launched several unsuccessful campaigns for public office, obtained a philosophy degree and reverted to manual labor in Detroit. He gave up the dream of living off his music but never stopped playing it.
“I felt I was ready for the world, but the world wasn’t ready for me,” Rodriguez said. “I feel we all have a mission — we have obligations,” he said. “Those turns on the journey, different twists — life is not linear.”