In the 1990s, Dan Kroha had no idea who Sixto Rodriguez was.
He sometimes saw Rodriguez in bars around Detroit or walking down the street in the Cass Corridor. But it wasn’t until Rodriguez approached Kroha after a bar gig with his band Demolition Doll Rods that he realized he was in the presence of a fellow musician.
“I think he had a little bottle of whiskey on him and he offered me a sip of that,” Kroha told BridgeDetroit. “He was a very friendly, humble, sweet man.”
Kroha ended up playing alongside Rodriguez on a short tour across the Midwest in 2009. During a concert in Chicago, he remembered being so enthralled listening to Rodriguez play that he missed his guitar solo.
“That was the first time that we played on stage together and he just started jamming out on rhythm guitar and I just was listening to him,” Kroha said. “I got caught up in the moment.”
Rodriguez, a folk and rock musician who grew a following of loyal fans all around the world, died last week in Detroit at the age of 81. He first released two albums in the early 1970s but they failed to gain an audience in the United States and he retired from the music industry. Rodriguez wouldn’t achieve fame until years later when he discovered that his music was popular overseas. He then became known stateside when a documentary about him, “Searching for Sugarman” was released in 2012.
According to the Associated Press, Rodriguez died following a short illness.
Kroha said Rodriguez’s music continued to resonate with people because it was timeless.
“He wasn’t trying to be commercial and often when you try to make commercial pop music, it ends up very popular for a short time, but then becomes dated,” he said. “He made music that came from his heart and so it ended up being timeless.”
‘Who is that guy?’
Rodriguez was born July 10, 1942, in Detroit to Mexican immigrants who came to work in the city’s industrial sector, according to the memorial website legacy.com. In 1970, he released his debut album, “Cold Fact,” and followed it up with “Coming From Reality” a year later. Rodriguez’s music was known to be progressive, with lyrics protesting the Vietnam War, racial inequality and abuse of women.
But the albums flopped and he retired from music in 1976. Rodriguez then began working labor jobs to make ends meet. He also tried his hand at public service, running unsuccessfully for Detroit City Council and the mayor’s seat, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Detroit musician Tino Gross said Rodriguez had a mysterious aura about him. When he was a student at Wayne State University in the 1970s, he recalled seeing Rodriguez walking around, even through the cold and winter snow.
“I’d be driving up Cass Avenue and there’d be, like, almost a blizzard,” Gross said. “And I’d see through the wipers and the snow this mysterious figure always dressed in black pumping it through the snow, which was swirling around him. And he’ll have a guitar on his back. I would always go, ‘Who is that guy?’”
Another thing that made Rodriguez mysterious was that he didn’t like to be in the spotlight. Gross said he knows musicians who used to play with Rodriguez, saying he was such an introvert that he often played gigs with his back turned to the audience.
A second act
In the 1970s, Rodriguez would find the spotlight in Australia. In 1979, he toured the country with his wife Konny Rodriguez, returning in 1981, according the Associated Press.
Around this time, he was also gaining a following in South Africa, with his albums becoming social justice anthems during apartheid.
In 1997, Rodriguez’s daughter, Eva Rodriguez, discovered her father’s huge overseas fanbase online. Little was known about Rodriguez in South Africa, with fans believing he died in the 1970s.
However, in the late 90s, South African fans Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom set off on a search to find out if Rodriguez was still alive. That became the subject of “Searching for Sugarman.” The film won an Academy Award for best documentary in 2013.
After the film’s release, Rodriguez experienced a resurgence of his career, appearing on late-night TV, performing at Coachella and going on national tours.
Singer Arum Rae toured with Rodriguez, opening for him in the US and Canada in 2016 and 2017. As a fan, playing with him was surreal, the Nashville musician said. The two became friends and Rodriguez would sometimes come into her dressing room and give her a hug before the show.
“He would always tell me that I have the voice, I just need the songs,” Rae said. “And I would say, ‘Well, why don’t you write them for me?’ He’ll laugh and be like, ‘No, you gotta do that on your own.’”
Rae said Rodriguez has inspired her own music, calling his songwriting “romantic and rebellious.”
“The way he uses words has hugely influenced me because it’s very down to earth, but he wraps it around like poetry,” she said. “He’s parallel with Bob Dylan to me.”
Detroit musician Gross also likened Rodriguez to being on the same level with Dylan as well as other folk singers like Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen. While the two never played together, Gross interviewed Rodriguez’s producer Dennis Coffey for his local TV show, “Six Degrees with Tino G.”
“A whole new generation is figuring out who he was,” Gross said. “It’s gonna, move into the legendary (status) like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin where he’s going to join the greats…where the world knows who he was. He was one of the true greats from the Motor City.”
Rodriguez is survived by his wife, Konny and daughters Eva Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy, and Regan Rodriguez.