After coming down from my wine and gin-soaked euphoria after receiving the amazing news that I am officially cancer-free (yay!), I got the opportunity to chat with Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, the inspiration behind the Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman.
If you haven’t seen the documentary yet (where have you been hiding?) then take a quick look at the trailer so you can be up-to-date with what this episode is all about. Go on, I’ll wait.
Finished? Alright, let’s jump into it!
Sugar is one of the main characters in the documentary. He owns a vintage record store in Cape Town called Mabu Vinyl, an iconic meeting spot for the city’s art and music scene. The store is just around the corner from where I am staying, so the other day I walked in, bought a T-shirt, and asked to interview Sugar. A few days later I received a call from the man himself and soon I was ringing the doorbell of his home, eager to hear more from the amateur music detective. He opened the door and welcomed me in with a warm smile and, of course, a classic South African ‘howzit!’.
“I’m Sugar,” he said, as if I didn’t already know (I have watched the documentary more times than I care to admit). Sugar got his nickname from his army days when his friends preferred to call him Sugarman instead of Segerman, and it soon became Sugar for short. The reference comes from the song ‘Sugarman’ by the American singer-songwriter Rodriguez, an incredibly popular music artist in South Africa at the time.
THE COLD HARD FACTS
Sixto Rodriguez is a remarkable musician hailing from Detroit, Michigan USA. Although immensely gifted, his music career had a disappointing start in the US, with his first album Cold Fact (1970) selling only a handful of copies. However, by chance or divine meddling, bootleg copies of Cold Fact started making their way to African shores in the early 70s which resulted in a massive fanbase in South Africa, unbeknownst to the singer. The Cold Fact LP was a fixture in most South African’s record collection, and the singer was more popular than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in South Africa.
However, the only information South Africans could get regarding Rodriguez was from the Cold Fact LP. The musician’s identity was a mystery, and so rumours and tales started surfacing about his possible whereabouts, furthering his popularity and mysticism in the country. It’s important to consider that during this time South Africa was in the height of the Apartheid regime, which saw the country being isolated from the world through trade tariffs and embargos, and the like. So very little information about the goings-on of the rest of the world trickled into the South African public’s radar.
Sugar, like every South African in the 70s, was a massive Rodriguez fan and so attempted to find out more about the singer, finding hidden messages and geographical references in the lyrics of his songs.
To cut a long and fascinating 30-year story short – which forms the basis for the documentary – Sugar eventually tracked down Rodriguez in Detroit, almost penniless working in construction, and informed him of his celebrity in South Africa. The singer-songwriter had been toiling in obscurity due to his record label’s inability and lack of desire to promote the artist as he deserved to be. Add to this a fair bit of thuggish dishonesty and limitless greed by record labels in the US, and the result was a musical genius relegated to a lowly construction worker, deprived of a life of stardom he so desperately deserved. Rodriguez quit his musical career in 1971 and even though he sold hundreds of thousands of records – maybe millions – in another country, he never saw a dime of that money.
After years trying to track him down, Sugar and his accomplices managed to fly Rodriguez and his family over to South Africa where he played 6 sold-out shows to arenas filled with cheering fans – something the singer had never experienced before. It’s an absolutely heartwarming story that still gives me chills – and it is far from over.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the story of how Sugar eventually got the opportunity to meet his idol.
When Rodriguez’s music could be heard from every living room in 1970’s South Africa, his fans believed he was just as famous in his home country as he was in South Africa. And why not? After all, his talent was undeniable, his lyrics layered and politically poignant, and he was seen as a worthy rival to the likes of Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. Surrounded by mystery due to lack of information about the artist, many people believed that he was dead. Some said he shot himself on stage in an underground bar in Moscow, others that he’d set himself alight and burned to death before an audience someplace else, or he died of a drug overdose. Some rumours said that he was alive but in a mental institution, another that he was in jail for murdering his girlfriend. The mystery grew rampant.
After Apartheid ends in the mid-’90s, Sugar teamed up with journalist Craig Bartholomew to find out the truth and solve the mystery about the enigmatic muso, particularly who he was and how he died. It started when Sugar, the Rodriguez expert, was asked to co-write the liner notes for the booklet when the South African record company released Rodriguez’s second album, Coming from Reality (1971) on CD for the first time.
On the other side of the country, in Johannesburg, Craig Bartholomew saw this as an invitation to join the search for the elusive singer-songwriter. It was not easy, as the pair explained, and after nearly two years of frustration and dead ends they nearly gave up. But then they had a breakthrough. Their detective work finally led to Detroit, Michigan and eventually to Mike Theodore, the producer of Rodriguez’s Cold Fact LP. Craig managed to get him on the phone where he informed the elated journalist that Rodriguez was in fact still alive and well, sane, not suffering from burns, living a quiet life in Detroit. He had been working in construction for over 25 years since the day he was dropped from his record label.
One year later in 1998, after eventually tracking down his number and getting to speak to Rodriguez himself on the telephone telling him about his remarkable story, Sugar and Craig flew Rodriguez and his daughters to South Africa to perform 6 sold-out shows for adoring local fans.
But still, not many people outside of South Africa had heard about Rodriguez and his remarkable story of stolen fame. That was until Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul heard the story from Sugar.
BRING BACK THE COLOURS TO MY DREAM
It took Bendjelloul close to 5 years of hard work with hardly any budget to finish the film. It was released in January 2012, one year after I myself heard the story from my friend Toby during my first visit to Cape Town.
While I was living in Cape Town my friend told me that Rodriguez was on his way back to perform more shows in South Africa. I couldn’t actually believe how I could be so lucky to be in Cape Town at the same time as Rodriguez. My friends quickly told me that the tickets to his shows would definitely be sold out, but my stubborn Danish charm permitted me to dig deeper to source a ticket.
After scouring the internet I eventually found newly-released tickets for an additional show due to the high demand. I jumped to buy the tickets – but not just any ticket. I managed to secure the front row, center. My seat was A1. I couldn’t believe my luck. Even though at this stage, I hadn’t heard a single song from the man, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience it.
After I bought the ticket to the concert, I went down to a record shop and bought the album and the movie on DVD (yes, this was in 2013 and the time where we actually bought CD’s and DVDs!). And then I basically had the album playing on repeat in order for me to prepare myself. And his music was everything I expected and hoped for, and more. Rodriguez is a true artist, and if you have yet to experience his musical mastery then I urge you to do yourself a favour and do so. You won’t regret it.
Are you eager to hear what it was like to be at that concert hearing Rodriguez play live for the first time in his 2013 tour? Then you don’t want to miss part 2 tomorrow. Stay tuned.