*Searching for Sugar Man*

by on October 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm in Film, History, Music | Permalink

There is plenty of social science in this unexpected indie hit, which depicts the musical career of Sixto Rodriguez.  Rodriguez had two very good albums in the early 1970s but faded into obscurity after failing to gain commercial traction.  Unbeknown to the artist, he had become an enduring national celebrity in South Africa.  His fans there had no idea he had been working in Detroit as a construction demolitionist (this is before the modern internet, although eventually the internet helped his daughter discover his fame in South Africa, through a fan’s web site).  Here is Cass Sunstein on the movie and its portrayal of social and cultural dynamics.

The music is quite appealing — imagine a mix of Donovan, Motown, and low-tech psychedelia, the latter a’la Love.  If you are looking to hear or download one song, I recommend the iconic “I Wonder.”

To my ear it sounds naive but charming, but to the South Africans it was revelatory and cool.  Furthermore here was a non-Black coming out of Motown (Mexican ancestry but born in the United States), yet with much of the anti-establishment feel of a black artist of the time.  The movie never touches on this racial angle as possibly relevant to his popularity; did the South Africans require a non-black version of a black idol?  And what does he now symbolize, given that white rule has ended?  When they show Rodriguez’s post-apartheid concerts in South Africa, there is not a black face to be seen, as if he has become a nostalgia act in a slightly unsettling manner with the anti-establishment gloss now drained away.

The full story has not yet been told, not even on the American side.  From watching the movie, the viewer receives the feeling that Rodriguez fell into a hole circa 1973.  The reality is that he was touring Australia as late as 1981 (more here) and even put out a live album from that country in the same year.  Music aficionados will know all about the close cultural connections between Australia and South Africa at that time; did Rodriguez really have no idea of his South African following?  And what kind of connections was he keeping with the commercial world of music?

I would gladly read a book about how failing artists string out their careers by playing in niche markets or writing for them.  For instance Harry Nilsson released some of his late albums in the UK, Australia, and Japan only.  Erwin Nyiregyhzai kept giving periodic piano recitals in Japan, well after his prodigy years were over and he supposedly was “lost” and thus before his “rediscovery.”  What is a rediscovery anyway?

Here is Rodriguez’s eBook guide to happiness.  For pointers I thank Cass Sunstein and also Angus.

Eric October 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Tracy Chapman is still quite popular in France and releases albums that get no play int he USA.

dirk October 27, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Many American blues and jazz artists who can’t make much money in America have been surviving on European and Japan tours for decades.

Benny Lava October 27, 2012 at 3:18 pm

There is a Swedish-American guitarist named Yngwie Malmsteen who was a bit popular in America in the 80s. His star waned in the US but in Japan he is the most popular non-Japanese artist, outselling Celine Dion in Japan. At one point in the late 90s he was without a US record contract and at the same time playing with the New Japan Philharmonic.

I think it is common for an artist to fall out of favor in the US only to find continued success overseas. I can’t think of any examples of an artist falling out of favor in his or her home country but continuing to find success in America.

Brett Dunbar October 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm

There are a few; Hugh Laurie and Tracey Ullman for example are much bigger in the USA than in Britain. Laurie is known mostly as the former comedy partner of Stephen Fry and appearing in Blackadder, he’s recognised but not that famous. Ullman is largely forgotten in the UK, she hasn’t had a series here since the early 1980s.

So Much For Subtlety October 27, 2012 at 11:05 pm

You can’t think of any? How about John Lennon? Or perhaps a better example is Tom Jones. Was Yoko Ono ever big in Japan? Was she ever big in the US? Zhang Yimou is widely despised in China for producing crap films only the West likes.

But the more interesting people are the athletes who fail to make (or stay at) the grade in the US. There was a really interesting story about a Black American basketball player who went to the Philippines. There is a film out about another Afro-American playing in, of all places, Iran. There is a whole world of people on the move in the sports area that is little reported.

Benny Lava October 28, 2012 at 12:20 am

So what you’re telling me is that the Beatles were a one hit wonder in Britain? Or that Yoko Ono had hits in America? Maybe you should stop posting drunk.

So Much For Subtlety October 28, 2012 at 2:18 am

I am mildly impressed with your ability to take comments out of context and draw a nonsensical conclusions from nothing.

The Beatles produced many hits. But after a while Lennon – unlike some others like PM or RS – found a more receptive audience in the US.

Did Yoko have any hits in the US? As I said, probably not. But a lot more fans than in Japan I would think.

anon/portly October 28, 2012 at 5:14 pm

According to Martin Strong, the highest chart position (UK first, then US) for Imagine: 1/1; for Sometime in NYC: 11/48; for Mind Games: 13/9; for Walls and Bridges: 6/1; for Rock ‘N’ Roll: 6/6; for Shaved Fish: 8/12; for Double Fantasy: 1/1; for Milk and Honey: 3/11.

affenkopf October 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Here’s a list of American cultural entities more popular in other countries than in America. Some interesting entries.

affenkopf October 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm
Steve Sailer October 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm

“(Mexican ancestry but born in the United States)”

I think the early 1970s was the cultural peak for Mexican-Americans in terms of sheer number of celebrities: Lee Trevino, Pancho Gonzales, Joan Baez, Cheech of Cheech and Chong, Linda Ronstadt, Anthony Quinn, Joe Kapp, Jim Plunkett, etc.

I don’t know why.

Brian Donohue October 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm

From what I saw of Rodriguez on 60 minutes, he is one extremely cool human being.

Freg Broder October 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Sampled the music on Amazon & it isn’t particlulalry good.

Let’s be honest. There is a reason it didn’t sell very well in America and is unknown to listeners.

A good story. Not great music.

Sinclair Davidson October 28, 2012 at 7:02 am

You’ve pulled that whole ‘race’ argument out of your backside. You now have to explain why Lionel Richie was popular in South Africa, and Michael Jackson too.

Dan Collins October 28, 2012 at 7:15 am

There’s a very long history of utterly obscure American soul singers being tracked down in obscurity by British northern soul fans. Sometimes, the artists are down and outs; it’s not hard to imagine their consternation when a white Lancastrian turns up on the doorstep of their hostel and says words to the effect of, ‘People three thousand miles away regard you as a legend and are paying £1,000 a time for the single you recorded in 1966, which even you have forgotten about.’

Eddie and Ernie were one such act. Eddie Campbell sadly died before he knew he was still being listened to; Ernie Johnson was a homeless man pushing his few belongings around in a shopping cart when he was eventually located. A collection of their work, Lost Friends, has since been released.

I myself have been fortunate enough to track down a number of artists, including an obscure Houston group called Soul Brothers Inc. The telephone call I made to the lead singer George Brown to tell him he was admired in the UK by soul fans was highly emotional. His is one of the great unknown soul voices – google ‘Pyramid’ to hear it.

axa October 28, 2012 at 11:19 am

funny story about sixto rodrigues. when i started using last.fm in 2005, rodriguez where one of the first suggestions when I entered “shocking blue” as input. never imagined he was fall into oblivion. i always tought he was somehow big in early 70s to be considered important by last.fm search algorithm. maybe it was because his music was free, or cheap rights, haha.

by the way i relate easely to “sugar man” song, back in the days as a college student sometimes it was hard to find got pot =)

Ted Craig October 28, 2012 at 11:36 am

“Furthermore here was a non-Black coming out of Motown”
You mean Detroit, right? Gee, a non-black artist coming out of Detroit in the early ’70s. You mean like Iggy Pop, the MC5, Alice Cooper, etc?

DK October 29, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Definitely the best song by Sixto. Highly recommended:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8axUpG2472U
Easily gets into my all time Top 100 at any time.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: