Sixto Rodriguez, Subject of Searching for Sugar Man, Dead at 81

Sixto Rodriguez, the Detroit musician who found surprise success in South Africa and became the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, has died at the age of 81.

The news was announced in a statement from his official website, which reads, “It is with great sadness that we at announce that Sixto Diaz Rodriguez has passed away earlier today. We extend our most heartfelt condolences to his daughters — Sandra, Eva and Regan — and to all his family.”

Though Rodriguez’s cause of death is unknown, The Detroit News reports he had been in declining health.

Born July 10th, 1942 in Detroit, Michigan as the sixth child of a Mexican father and Native American mother, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez began his music career in 1967 under the name Rod Riguez. Three years later, he signed with Sussex Records and began recording under the name Rodriguez. Following two albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, he was dropped by the label due to lackluster sales and quit making music.

Instead, Rodriguez bought a dilapidated house in Detroit for $50 in a government auction and began working in physical labor jobs. He was also politically active and advocated for the improvement of lives for working-class citizens, unsuccessfully running for public office multiple times.

In the meantime, Rodriguez’s albums were a commercial success overseas. By the mid-1970s, his music was receiving major airplay in Australia, Botswana, New Zealand, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, and imported copies of his LPs were selling out. In South Africa, he’s believed to have sold more records than Elvis Presley.

Once the Sussex albums were no longer available, an Australian record label called Blue Goose Music bought the Australian rights to Rodriguez’s recordings. In addition to releasing his two studio albums, Blue Goose put out a 1977 compilation titled At His Best, which featured unreleased recordings from 1973 like “Can’t Get Away,” “I’ll Slip Away,” and “Street Boy.”

At His Best went platinum in South Africa, drawing Rodriguez comparisons to Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. He was also a mysterious figure in South Africa and was even believed to have died by suicide after quitting music.

Though Rodriguez capitalized on his success in Australia by touring there in 1979 and 1981, he didn’t find out about his fame in South Africa until 1997, when his eldest daughter, Eva, stumbled across a website dedicated to him. His first tour in South Africa was chronicled in the 2001 documentary, Dead Men Don’t Tour: Rodriguez in South Africa 1998, and he would return to the country in 2001 and 2005.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez became a cult figure back in the United States, where his signature track, “Sugar Man” was sampled in Nas’ Stillmatic cut “You’re Da Man.” It was also featured in the 2006 Heath Ledger movie Candy. Cold Fact and Coming from Reality were later re-released by Light in the Attic Records in 2009.

In 2012, the Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul premiered the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man at Sundance Film Festival. It centered around the efforts of two South African fans aiming to find out whether Rodriguez’s rumored death was true. After winning a number of festival awards — including Sundance — it took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2013.

The documentary’s success led to a wave of exposure in the United States, landing Rodriguez musical spots on Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was also the subject of stories on CNN and 60 Minutes, and went on to tour in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and the US throughout the 2010s.

He is survived by three daughters: Eva, Sandra, and Regan.