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The Real Search for Sugarman Ends Here!
By Rod Bishop, former CEO of AFTRS

srThis year’s Academy Award winning documentary Searching for Sugarman, follows the career of the undeniably talented Sixto Rodrigeuz, a singer-songwriter whose 1970 debut album (“Cold Fact”) and his 1971 follow-up disappeared without trace. We are told Rodrigeuz also disappeared without trace only to re-emerge in the mid-1990s when two South Africans, believing the artist had suicided in the 1970s, set out to discover what happened to a man whose music had attracted an enormous following during and after the Apartheid era. They were astonished to find Rodigeuz alive and working as a construction labourer in his hometown of Detroit. A series of huge concerts (his first, we are told) were staged in South Africa in 1998, a triumphant return after 27 years in the wilderness.  We are left admiring South Africa, the country that kept the flame alive, saved a career and kick-started the rest of the world’s appreciation of his neglected talent.

Inspiring material. How much of it is true?

When the film was released in Australia last October, Paul Byrnes in the Sydney Morning Herald pointedly mentioned Rodrigeuz’s career had not disappeared at all after the release of the early albums. The artist had toured Australia several times in the 1970s to large audiences. Both his albums – and two new Australian albums – were released in this country.

Rolling Stone published an article on March 28 this year - “Rodriguez: 10 Things You Don’t Know About the ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ Star” (here).  One of them is:

Australia discovered him before South Africa.

srcfA handful of copies of Rodriguez's 1970 debut LP, Cold Fact, reached Australia months after the album bombed in America. One wound up in the hands of Australian radio DJ Holger Brockman, who began playing "Sugar Man" on 2SM radio in Sydney. Record stores started selling Cold Fact for upwards of $300, and Blue Goose records eventually released it to huge sales all across the continent. "Every single one of my friends had Cold Fact," says Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst. "We'd play Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, Billy Joel's first album and Cold Fact."

By the late 1970s, Australian concert promoters tracked down Rodriguez in Detroit. He arrived in Australia with his two teenage daughters for a 15-date tour in early 1979. "He was just stunned by what we put together for him," promoter Michael Coppel told Billboard at the time. "He had never played a concert before, just bars and clubs." He played to 15,000 people in Sydney, almost as many fans as Rod Stewart drew a few weeks earlier…

…A live album from the tour was released in 1981, right around the time he came back for a second tour. This time he shared the bill with Midnight Oil at some gigs. "I thought it was the highlight of my career," Rodriguez says today. "I had achieved that epic mission. Not much happened after that. No calls or anything."

The professionally produced “Rodriguez Alive” recorded at The Regent Theatre, Sydney on March 17 and 18, 1979 can be heard on You Tube (here). The compilation album “Rodriguez At His Best” was released in Australia in 1977.

The music website Rope of Silicon (here) states: “His records were also in print in numerous countries in Europe throughout the 70s and 80s and into the 90s as well”.

None of this appears in Searching for Sugarman. Rather, the record-buying support, the record industry releases of his material and the huge concerts all happened first in Australia, in some cases nearly 20 years before South Africa.

Some have questioned other aspects of the film – what happened to the artist’s royalties; who was his wife; why does Rodriguez appear so reluctant to talk about his work. But they seem insignificant compared with the omission of the Australian tours and albums – events that fill some of the missing 27 years in a film that doesn’t mention Australia at all.

It’s possible the two South Africans who used the internet in the mid-1990s as their chief research tool missed all references to Australia. The completed film, however, is another matter. Released in 2012, it seems inconceivable the director/ co-writer Malik Bendjelloul was unaware of the Australian history. Perhaps he thought we wouldn’t notice. His film credits South Africa for supporting Rodriguez in ways that rightfully belong to Australia. It is clearly history rewritten and once again throws doubt over the Academy’s selection processes for the Oscar. But that is hardly news.