How a construction worker from Detroit became “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa

The incredible story of Sixto "Sugar Man" Rodriguez

By Nicholas Nehamas

Many have compared Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez to Bob Dylan. That’s not fair – to Rodriguez. (Reuters)

In the early 1970’s, a Mexican-American construction worker from Detroit put out two albums of protest music. Nobody bought them, and Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez disappeared from the American music scene.

But somehow, in South Africa, Rodriguez became “bigger than Elvis,” according to an article in the Daily Maverick.

“The songs of Rodriguez have been woven into the cultural fabric of South African life for decades,” writes Rebecca Davis. And yet, even though Rodriguez would become a folk icon in the anti-apartheid movement, nobody in South Africa knew anything about him. In fact, most South Africans thought he had committed suicide at a young age.

Rodriguez—very much alive—didn’t find any of this out until 1998 when a record shop owner in Cape Town finally managed to track down the elusive singer, who’d given up his performing career long before.

It’s an amazing story, one that makes you believe in hope and chance and love like a dyed-in-the-wool flower child. Now, Rodriguez’s incredible journey has been turned into a critically-acclaimed documentary; “Searching for Sugar Man” is one of three films selected for the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival.

Here at Latitude News we gave a listen to some of the songs on Cold Fact and Coming from Reality (both available on iTunes). You should too. Rodriguez is no hyped-up, indie sensation – his music is the real deal. Comparing it to Bob Dylan, as so many have done, doesn’t do justice to Sugar Man’s edgy, wistful and downright groovy style.

Our favorites included “I Wonder,” “Sugar Man” and “Establishment Blues.”

From the first track: “I wonder about the tears in children’s eyes / And I wonder about the soldier that dies / I wonder will this hatred ever end / I wonder and worry my friend / I wonder, I wonder, wonder. Don’t you?”

Check his work out soon, or you may find yourself behind the curve: David Letterman hosts the legendary Rodriguez next week.