February 24, 2013

Cult hero guitarist becomes spokesman for musicians' rights

Singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, long unaware of his huge popularity abroad, now hopes to get his royalties.

By JEFF KAROUB and MICHELLE FAUL/The Associated Press

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.

click image to enlarge

Sixto Rodriguez, shown in Detroit in a scene from the Oscar-nominated documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” has become a symbol for the rights of wronged musicians.

Malik Bendjelloul via The Associated Press

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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