1969 Record By Detroit's Rodriguez Resurfaces

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez sounded like a cross between Bob Dylan and Love's Arthur Lee. But after his recording debut in 1969, both Rodriguez and his record disappeared in the U.S. He enjoyed success in other countries and now the record is being re-released.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Next week, the singer and guitarist called Rodriguez will make his New York debut. Rodriguez, who performs under that one name, is 66 years old. He was born in Detroit. He is huge in South Africa and Australia. In those countries, he's mentioned in the same breath as The Doors and Neil Young. Rodriguez is nearly unknown in the U.S., but Joel Rose reports that may be about to change.

JOEL ROSE: In 1969, Rodriguez went into the studio with a handful of Motown session musicians to record his debut album, "Cold Fact."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR MAN")

SIXTO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Sugar Man, won't you hurry? 'Cause I'm tired of these scenes. For a blue coin, won't you bring you bring back all those colors to my dreams? Silver magic ships, you carry jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane.

ROSE: One of those Motown veterans was guitarist Dennis Coffey, who played with everyone from Marvin Gaye to Ringo Starr to George Clinton. He helped produced "Cold Fact."

DENNIS COFFEY: He had, just had a - I felt - a gift for writing these songs and singing, you know, about the conditions that he saw every day in his neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Going down a dirty inner city side road I plotted. Madness passed me by, she smiled hi, I nodded.

ROSE: A lot of people, including Rodriguez, thought the album would make him a star.

RODRIGUEZ: We thought we was going to happen, you know. And everything looked good. But there's no guarantees in music.

ROSE: The record drew a handful of positive reviews, but Rodriguez apparently didn't help his own cause by performing for an audience full of record industry big wigs in Los Angeles with his back to them.

RODRIGUEZ: I'm not saying I didn't do that stuff, but I'm saying I've got my eyes closed. I'm listening to the other musicians, and to really - I'm more into the tune.

ROSE: But not very into the business. The record tanked. So did a follow up. By 1972, Rodriguez was back in Detroit, where he was born to parents who moved there from Mexico. Mostly, he worked construction jobs.

RODRIGUEZ: Renovation of buildings and residence and things like that. Pretty much hard wing class kind of stuff. Nothing beats reality, you know?

ROSE: But while Rodriguez was busy dealing with reality in Detroit, his records were actually selling in Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELF REFLECTION")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) And you claim you've got something going, something you call unique. But I've seen your self pity showing, as the tears roll down your cheek.

ROSE: In 1979, he got an offer to perform in a real rock club for the first time in his life.

RODRIGUEZ: We sold the Regent Theater, a 2,000 seater, four times we sold it out. And so that was my intro to the Australian part of it.

ROSE: And when you come back to Detroit and you're working your job, do you even tell people?

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, they - people around me know and musicians know. But that's it.

ROSE: Rodriguez toured Australia again in 1981, opening for Midnight Oil. But even that experience couldn't prepare him for what came next.

STEPHEN SEGERMAN: In South Africa, he's almost as big as Elvis.

ROSE: Stephen Segerman runs a record store in Cape Town. Like a lot of South Africans, he first heard "Cold Fact" when he was doing his mandatory year of military service. Segerman's not sure why an album by a Mexican-American singer that vanished without a trace in the U.S. became an underground hit with white South Africans, but he thinks it started with one particular lyric in the song "I Wonder."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) I wonder how many times you had sex. And I wonder do you know who'll be next.

SEGERMAN: In apartheid-era South Africa, which is unbelievably conservative, that was rude. But it slipped past the censor board, and everybody wanted to have it and it was just counter-revolutionary in its own kind of way.

ROSE: By some accounts, Rodriguez has sold more than 100,000 records in South Africa, a country with fewer than 50 million people, though Segerman says no one there know very much about him.

SEGERMAN: The rumor was that he was dead, that he'd died in a number of very strange ways. He set himself on fire on stage. He died in prison. Everybody had a story.

ROSE: Finally, in 1998, Segerman and a journalist tracked Rodriguez down in Detroit, and they convinced him to play a few shows in South Africa.

RODRIGUEZ: The first show was just - we did Cape Town, Durban, by the Indian Ocean, and we did Johannesburg. The audience was just so young and so just bright-faced and in front of me.

RODRIGUEZ: Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

RODRIGUEZ: Johannesburg.

SEGERMAN: Then he walked out on stage.

RODRIGUEZ: Johannesburg.

SEGERMAN: The roar from 5,000 people literally drove this man backward, and then he started singing his first song. And the entire audience, I mean, every single person - and there was like people from 60 down to six - sang every word of every song back at him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) I wonder how many times you've been had, and I wonder how many plans have gone bad. I wonder how many times you had sex, and I wonder do you know who'll be next. I wonder...

ROSE: I can't get over it. Like, it's, like, a parallel world. Like, you go to the Southern Hemisphere, and you're playing for 7,000 people. Then you go back to Detroit and you're hammering nails.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, that's right. Definitely. And sweat and everything else, yeah. That's - yeah, that's really true. But I don't mind it. It keeps the blood circulating and stuff.

ROSE: Rodriguez has since quit his day job. He's been back to tour South Africa and Australia several times each. His daughter even married a South African man and started a family near Cape Town. Rodriguez admits this is not exactly how he imagined his career turning out.

RODRIGUEZ: My audience is Afrikaans, and it's kind of interesting. You know, I expected third world disgruntled or something, you know. But it's quite not that.

ROSE: This month, "Cold Fact" is finally getting a proper CD release in the U.S. on the independent Light in the Attic label. Its founder, Matt Sullivan, and original producer Dennis Coffey say the songs sound remarkably fresh considering they're almost 40 years old.

MATT SULLIVAN: So many things that he talks about in 1969 completely hold true today, you know, the politics, the war.

COFFEY: There's still a lot of social ills that are still present. You know, I think what he was talking about still exists.

BLOCK: The Establishment Blues")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring. Divorce the only answer. Smoking causes cancer. This system's going to fall soon to an angry young tune, and that's a concrete cold fact.

ROSE: The question's whether American audiences are finally ready to hear what Rodriguez tried to tell them nearly four decades ago.

RODRIGUEZ: We get a second chance, some of us. So, yeah, I'm taking this one. And if it proves out, then, you know, well, I'll get vindicated for all of it.

ROSE: But Rodriguez also knows there are no guarantees in music.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

RODRIGUEZ: And now you hear the music but the words don't sound too clear. Mama, Papa, stop treasure what you got soon you may be caught without it.

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