In the context of our previous “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week II” review for Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, we mentioned the unsung career of Detroit musician Arthur Pendragon cast as The Phantom by Capitol Records in 1974. By the late 1980’s, the overseas pirate industry would victimize his career on vinyl, which was later exacerbated by the advent of the compact disc.
Another mysterious Detroit musician victimized by the pirate industry—but later, unlike The Phantom, finding success as result of those vinyl buccaneers—was Sixto Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter discovered in the late Sixties performing in a Detroit nightclub by an ex-Motown Records’ executive. With the stealthy shades of the outlandish, managerial marketing of Tony DeFries with John Cougar, Kim Fowley with the Runaways, Jerry Brandt with Jobriath, and Ed “Punch” Andrews with The Phantom, Rodriquez was hailed as the next “Bob Dylan”—and, as usual, the ostentatious promotion failed to translate into radio play or retail sales. The brief, promising career of Rodriquez, which garnered some critical acclaim, flamed out with an outlandish rumor: he committed a bizarre onstage suicide. Like the Phantom, hailed as the next “Jim Morrison,” the next “Bob Dylan” shined brightly, briefly, and then drifted into obscurity.
Except in South Africa.
The songs of protest by Rodriquez struck a chord in the poor, oppressed masses suffering under apartheid, who affectionately dubbed Rodriguez with the nom de plume: the Sugar Man (after his most infamous tune). Unknown to the mysterious, post-Rudy Martinez (of Detroit’s Question Mark, of ? and the Mysterians) and pre-Phantom Rodriquez, the Sugar Man’s compositions of dissent became as popular to South Africans as the Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley. Yet, as with the Phantom, the Sugar Man, never saw a penny in royalties—everyone thought Rodriquez (as well as the Phantom) was dead.
Forty years later, Malik Bendjelloul, a Stockholm, Sweden, documentary filmmaker, upon hearing the legend for the first time in a Cape Town, South Africa, record shop, set out to find the mysterious “Bob Dylan of Detroit.” The result of Bendjelloul’s search was the Sugar Man’s triumphant return to the stage with a 1998 series of South African concerts.
In the tradition of the positive effect the book and film documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil had on Anvil, a previously obscure Canadian metal band, Rodriquez experienced a career resurgence resulting from the renewed interest generated by Bendjelloul’s 2002 film, Searching for Sugar Man. Becoming a hit on the film festival circuit, the document bequeathed the once “dead” Rodriquez his first worldwide, mainstream exposure for the previous South African “hit songs” of “Sugar Man,” “Inner City Blues,” “I Wonder,” and “A Most Disgusting Song.”
Searching for Sugar Man is readily available across all PPV and VOD streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies and publishes on Medium. You can find his books on the career of Arthur Pendragon—The Ghost of Jim Morrison, the Phantom of Detroit, and the Fates of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Tales from a Wizard: The Oral History of Walpurgis—as softcover and eBooks in the online marketplace at all eRetailers—including Amazon.