Sixto Rodríguez: the Improbable Fame of an Artist
His uncertain fame and public recognition made Sixto Rodríguez confront the delicate balance between personal fortune and the authenticity of talent.
The music world is famously cruel. Throughout history, once and again we have seen cases of composers, interpreters and singers whose talent has only been recognized after their death, in that posterity which, so we are told, does justice to everything and leaves stanting only that which transcends the beating of critics and time. Such is the case of Sixto Rodríguez, an American singer born to Mexican parents who had a short music career (recording a couple albums in the 1970’s and going on a brief Australian tour), and flirted briefly with fame but soon was pushed aside by a wave of new faces and voices.
The son of migrants who left their country in the 20’s, Sixto was born in 1942 in Detroit, Michigan, to a lower middle class family who raised him in poverty and yet cultivated in him an interest in the underground culture, both of which would later be reflected in his music. Somehow, Rodríguez resolved to be a successful musician from very early in life, and in 1967 recorded his first single, “I’ll Slip Away,” with a small record company with a big name: Impact. Three years later he signed with Sussex Records, which was part of the better-known Buddha Records, with which he later recorded Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971); both influenced by Blues and Rock.
Before this, which he considered a failure, Sixto decided that his music career was over. His decision, however, was perhaps too hasty, as he soon gained unexpected popularity in South Africa, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Australia, which goes to show the capricious nature of success: met with disdain on one continent and revered on a remote other.
With his unexpected following, Rodríguez went on an Australian tour with the Mark Gillespie Band, and even started to work on his next album, Alive, whose title was a sort of wink at the strange rumor –perhaps inspired by his few years of silence– that he had died. But after his Australian tour he again went into obscurity, dedicating his time to studying for his BA in Philosophy at Wayne State University in Ohio and his new and unexpected profession in demolition. What perhaps is most surprising is the revelation his daughter made in the 1990’s: that Sixto Rodríguez was a musical icon in South Africa, a figure with a cult Internet following and loads of fans despite the fact that he had only, decades ago, distributed a couple albums to the country.
Capitalizing on the discovery, Rodríguez, almost 60 years old, went on a six-concert tour in South Africa, even producing a documentary about the experience: the Dead Men Don’t Tour: Rodríguez in South Africa 1998. It was a sort of final resurrection of the musical success Rodríguez had been looking for his whole life. With the re-release of his albums, new international tours scheduled as well as television appearances, this brilliant man is now battling between keeping the authenticity of his music and living out a long-lived dream.
We recommend the now very popular documentary Searching for Sugar Man, by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, in which all of the above is profusely and endearingly put.
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