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Remembering Sixto Rodriguez, South Africa's surprise superstar

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sixto Rodriguez was a rock star who didn't even know it for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR MAN")

SIXTO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Sugar man.

SIMON: Released two albums in the early 1970s. They went nowhere in America. But in South Africa, he became a megastar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR MAN")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) For a blue coin, won't you bring back all those colors to my dreams?

SIMON: Sixto Rodriguez died this week. According to his website, he was born and raised in Detroit, the sixth child of Mexican immigrants. He told NPR's Joel Rose in 2008 that when he recorded his debut album "Cold Fact" with a group of Motown Records session players...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Met a girl from Dearborn, early 6 o'clock this morn', a cold fact.

SIMON: He would record another album "Coming From Reality." It also flopped. As he told us in 2012, he had to work for a living.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RODRIGUEZ: I did demolition. I'd renovate homes and buildings and residence and Detroit, and that's what I was doing. And then I just - I left the music scene. So I basically went back to work.

SIMON: But while Sixto Rodriguez faded into obscurity here, his music lived on in South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ESTABLISHMENT BLUES")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) The mayor hides the crime rates, councilwoman hesitates. The public gets irate but forgets the vote dates.

SIMON: Nobody's quite sure how the music found its way to the apartheid state. But its anti-establishment lyrics appealed to young Afrikaners. Sixto Rodriguez became beloved. As Cape Town Records store owner Stephen Segerman told NPR in 2008...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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

SIMON: The late Malik Bendjelloul, who made an Oscar-winning documentary about Sixto Rodriguez, told us that in the 1990s, a couple of people from South Africa tried to find out what happened to their favorite musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MALIK BENDJELLOUL: After years of search, they found the producer of the album. They call him, and they are, like, full of questions. They ask, how was the album made? And the most important thing, how did he die? And he says, no, I saw Rodriguez this morning. He's living down the street. And they called Rodriguez, and they tell him, you're bigger than Elvis. And he, you know, hangs up the phone. He thinks it's a crank call; it's this practical joke. So they call him again. They said, listen, listen, this is true. Did you make an album called "Cold Fact"? Yeah, yeah. That's my album. In South Africa, it's more famous than "Abbey Road."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) I wonder about the love you can't find. And I wonder about the loneliness that's mine.

SIMON: Later in the 1990s, Sixto Rodriguez would tour South Africa, and he was received rapturously.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RODRIGUEZ: The first tour 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 faces in front of me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODRIGUEZ: Johannesburg.

(CHEERING)

SIMON: He told NPR in 2008 he was surprised by his fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Was it a huntsman or a player that made you pay the costs that now assumes relaxed positions and prostitutes your loss? Were you tortured by your own thirsts and those pleasures that you seek, that made you Tom the curious, that makes you James the weak?

SIMON: The words and music of Sixto Rodriguez, who died this week at 81. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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