Long lost artist is a story of loss and redemption

Published 5:04 pm Saturday, December 22, 2012

One of my favorite “new” albums of 2012 features an artist who hasn’t recorded a song since 1971.

A few months ago, a friend told me about a singer called Rodriguez, and proceeded to play a few songs off his phone of the folksinger with a quiet, but keen voice.

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That was enough to hook me, and I bought “Searching for Sugerman” — the soundtrack to a documentary on Rodriguez by the same name — a few weeks later.

But even more intriguing than Rodriguez’s fluid, slightly funky music is the story of how the singer eventually became a hit.

The Detroit-born Sixto Rodriguez’s musical career could have ended in 1971 after his first and only two studio albums — “Cold Fact” in 1970 and “Coming from Reality” in 1971 — failed to sell or gain much interest in the U.S.

In a case of ironic foreshadowing, the song “Cause” — the final track on “Coming from Reality” — opens with Rodriguez singing, “Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas.” A few weeks before Christmas, the label dropped Rodriguez.

After his first two albums failed to sell, Rodriguez mostly abandoned music, but several years after being cut by his label, Rodriguez has turned into a feel-good story this holiday season.

Rodriguez would play the occasional show and briefly toured in Australia, but mainly worked as a demolition man in Detroit. He became just one of the guys, and a somewhat mysterious figure people would see carrying a guitar around town.

As Rodriguez lived a relatively average life in Detroit, he was unaware his poetic songs were becoming widely popular in Apartheid-era South Africa, where some of the lyrics were controversial in the conservative country.

For years, Rodriguez knew nothing of this success and saw no royalties from his strong sales in the foreign county. In fact, he was something of a myth, as most of his fans believed the prevailing story circulating South Africa that he’d committed suicide by shooting himself or setting himself on fire on stage.

But in 1998, Rodriguez’s career took a turn when his oldest daughter found a website created by two fans who were looking into Rodriguez’s story.

Since Rodriguez has been rediscovered, he’s played concerts to thousands of fans in South Africa and his albums have been re-released. His comeback — or delayed popularity — took its biggest jump in 2012, when his story was the subject of the documentary “Searching for Sugerman,” often touted as one of the top musical documentaries of 2012.

The documentary has propelled Rodriguez’s music even further, as he’s performed on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and gained far more exposure in the country that largely ignored him in the 1970s.