A Little Sugar

It was my good fortune to spend Memorial Day weekend 2013 in Los Angeles with family and close friends.  They are beautiful and brilliant people, kindred spirits in their collective passion for music, art and writing.  As always, our discussions turned to movies, a subject on which my knowledge is nowadays painfully and transparently deficient.  During the course of our conversations I learned that a recent favorite of theirs was a documentary titled “Searching for Sugar Man.”  The story from the film as they described it was implausible.  It was the history of an obscure American singer and songwriter who produced two albums in the early 1970’s and then completely vanished from public view.  Through a series of coincidences bordering on the miraculous, the singer, one Sixto Rodriguez of Detroit, completely unknown in America, became wildly popular in South Africa.  Rodriguez remained ignorant of his South African fame through the decades and never reaped a penny for the sale of his music in that country.  The royalties were indeed funneled to his parent recording label, but none of the cash ever found its way to the luckless artist.

The South Africans were enthralled with this performer for a number of reasons.  His tunes were powerful … haunting work wrenched from the heart of a deeply caring man with a profound sense of social justice.  His lyrics sang the story of his times, elegantly reflecting the unrest that was such a critical component of the American landscape in those days.  As much as his songs captured the spirit of the United States during that tumultuous decade, they resonated even more in South Africa.  Apartheid remained a reality there, but the cracks were beginning to show, and the South African government actively shielded the public from ideas that might potentially subvert the stability of the status quo.  Rodriquez’ music was accordingly forbidden, which made it all the more popular with the nation’s underground social activists.  Musically, Rodriguez’ work was imaginative and vibrant, to the extent that his failure to reach national fame in America remains an enduring mystery.  Legend had it that this remarkable artist disappeared precipitously from the public eye because he’d committed suicide shortly after the release of his last album.  Rumors about the specifics ranged from a bullet to the head to self-immolation onstage in mid-performance.

Finally, a dedicated music aficionado from Cape Town – the owner of the Mabu Vinyl record shop – launched a search mission for the mythical singer.  The investigator was one Stephen Segerman  … nicknamed “Sugar” not only for his synchronous name … but also by his connection with Rodriguez’ popular tune “Sugar Man,” which described the daily business of an urban drug dealer.  Sugar’s detective work not only located the legendary Rodriguez, it found him alive and in good health, still living in Detroit and working as a day laborer in the construction business.  After communications were established, Rodriguez was invited to South Africa, where he performed for thousands of fans who showered him with the respect and adulation he’d been denied over the course of the last few decades.

As coincidence would have it, I would leave the very next weekend for my first real visit to South Africa.  On the flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town I stayed awake long enough to watch “Searching for Sugar Man” on the TV screen in the seatback in front of me.  I was moved by the sequence of events – inauspiciously inaugurated by the record shop owner – that ultimately delivered this sublimely humble man to prominence in the later years of his life.  My South African friends confirmed that the tales of Rodriguez’ fame were in no way apocryphal … he was indeed on a par with Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones in their country.

Since our itinerary had us in Cape Town for three full days prior to departing for the bush, my compadre Grant and I felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to the record store that instigated the resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez.  We located the modest shop early on a cool morning.  We held no expectation of seeing the now renowned owner, “Sugar” Segerman,  but Sugar’s face was the first we saw upon entry, and a more gracious and interesting man you’ll never find.  He was kind enough to take a few minutes to educate us on the nuances of Rodriguez’ work and then he posed for a few photographs with us.   We thanked him for caring enough to be the mechanism by which a measure of respect was at last delivered to Sixto Rodriguez, and for being kind enough to welcome us so warmly to his shop.

It was impossible to walk out the door to the winter sidewalk breeze and not be cognizant that we were exiting the place where justice long deferred was at last rendered into reality.  Miracles apparently do happen from time to time … and there can be no more deserving beneficiary than Sixto Rodriguez.

Stephen Segerman ... locater of the elusive Sixto Rodriguez

Stephen Segerman … locater of the elusive Sixto Rodriguez

 

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