Rodriguez, Musician and Subject of ‘Searching for Sugar Man,’ Dies at 81

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, the Detroit-born singer-songwriter who found cult success in South Africa and Australia before becoming the subject of the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, has died. He was 81.

The musician, known professionally as Rodriguez, died Wednesday, it was announced on his official website. No cause of death was revealed.

The note on his website continued: “We extend our most heartfelt condolences to his daughters —  Sandra, Eva and Regan — and to all his family. May His Dear Soul Rest In Peace.”

Rodriguez garnered more widespread recognition in the U.S. later in his career, following the release of Searching for Sugar Man. The doc, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, traced the folk musician’s journey from near obscurity to international cult success after his first two albums — which he recorded in Detroit in the early 1970s — struggled to sell.

The film received the 2013 Academy Award for best documentary feature, but Rodriguez was not awake at the time. “We also just came back from South Africa and I was tired,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I was asleep when it won, but my daughter Sandra called to tell me. I don’t have TV service anyway.” 

Bendjelloul died from suicide a little over a year after the Oscar triumph.

Born in Michigan, the musician called Detroit’s historic Woodbridge neighborhood home. In 1981, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Wayne State University’s Monteith College. But before his higher-education journey, he had been making music under the name Rod Riguez and in 1967 released the single “I’ll Slip Away.” Several years later, he would sign with Sussex Records and, shifting his professional name to Rodriguez, recorded and released two albums, 1970’s Cold Fact and 1971’s Coming From Reality.

Both albums were low sales performers, but he would be asked to perform as part of a concert tour in Australia in 1979 before returning in 1981 after he was already dropped by his record label. He would tell The Detroit News that he “thought they were strange flukes.”

After quitting his music career, he bought a house at auction in Detroit and worked in demolition and day labor while being politically active in his community. That included unsuccessful runs for the Detroit City Council, the mayor of Detroit and a bid for the Michigan House of Representatives between 1989 and 2000.

His daughter Eva found websites dedicated to her father in South Africa (he would also find fame in places like Botswana, New Zealand and Zimbabwe). Those sites, however, claimed he had shot himself onstage or overdosed on heroin. Once Rodriguez clarified that he was still alive, his career took on a second life internationally with the rerelease of his albums and a new round of touring in 2008.

“It’s been a great odyssey,” he said in a 2008 interview with The Detroit News. “All those years, you know, I always considered myself a musician. But reality happened.”

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