Sixto Rodriguez, singer-songwriter of Searching for Sugar Man fame, dies at 81

Sixto Rodriguez performs live onstage at the Arcimboldi Theatre in Milan, Italy on May 15, 2015
(Image credit: Elena Di Vincenzo/Archivio Elena di Vincenzo/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images)

Singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez – whose remarkable life was the focus of the Oscar-winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man – has died at the age of 81, his website confirmed Tuesday (August 8).

“It is with great sadness that we at Sugarman.org announce that Sixto Diaz Rodriguez passed away earlier today,” a statement on the singer’s website reads. “We extend our most heartfelt condolences to his daughters – Sandra, Eva, and Regan – and to all his family. Rodriguez was 81 years old. May his dear soul rest in peace.” 

To say that Rodriguez, as he was known, had a unique career would be quite the understatement. He released only two studio albums in his lifetime – 1970's Cold Fact and 1971's Coming from Reality. Both of these LPs were unlike anything in the popular music landscape at the time – and still stand out today.

At the albums' core were plain-spoken, acoustic-driven folk songs á la early Bob Dylan, often couched in luscious string and horn arrangements. What really made Rodriguez's songs unique, though, were their lyrics. 

With straightforward candor, Rodriguez documented the many woes of his native Detroit, telling tales of addiction and poverty while scorning the corrupt politicians and businessmen that played a significant role in the city's marked decline from its post-World War II heyday.

That distinct recipe, however, didn't bring the singer/songwriter the commercial success his label was hoping for. Cold Fact and Coming from Reality flopped, and Rodriguez left music, and faded into obscurity. 

To make ends meet, Rodriguez took up a series of manual labor jobs in Detroit, involved himself in local politics, and focused on raising his three daughters.

Entirely unbeknownst to him, however, Rodriguez's two albums found their way into South Africa, where their focus on the mechanisms behind oppression, poverty, and racism connected in a profound way with citizens segregated by the country's brutal apartheid regime. 

The Detroit native became a massive star in the country, but remained for decades unaware of his belated success, all the while never earning a cent from his ample South African record sales.

Even after the collapse of apartheid, Rodriguez remained a mythical figure in South Africa, until filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul set out to uncover the truth, and find Rodriguez. His quest was documented in the acclaimed 2012 documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, which won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary, and brought Rodriguez international fame.

Though he toured internationally – playing to huge crowds on multiple continents – on the back of the documentary, Rodriguez never issued another studio album.

Despite the fact that he was cheated out of royalties, and was unaware of his success until his twilight years, Rodriguez never harbored any regrets or bitterness about his extraordinary life. 

“There have already been rewards just from the opportunity to do all this,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “I guess we all want to get there right away, but I believe it’s never too early, never too late.”

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Jackson Maxwell

Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.