Searching for Sugar Man or success of a different kind

In discussions around education, we talk a lot about success.   Often we talk in terms of monetary success (usually referred to as ‘financial security’ which makes it sound less greedy).   Less often we refer to success in terms of happiness, fulfillment, spirituality or family; it is assumed, perhaps, that career and financial success inevitably lead to the other types of success.

Of course a lot of financially successful people are miserable in their personal lives, and on the other hand it is more difficult to appreciate the beauty of nature when you are busy wondering where your next meal will come from.

Ideas of what constitutes personal and/or financial success are so varied and individual in nature that it is difficult to speak of it in broad terms, and one of the reasons I abhor discussions in which someone tries to insist that without a 4 year degree, success is forever out of reach.

So this is a story about success, but also about failure.    It is the story of Sixto Rodriguez and his absolute failure to make it in the music industry in the United States, despite being (according to the producers who worked with him) possibly the best songwriter of his time, along with Bob Dylan.

The story is told at length in an astonishing documentary titled “Searching for Sugar Man”.  If you can find it in a theater, go see it.

In short, the story goes that Rodriguez was a singer songwriter living in Detroit.  He worked construction, and wrote songs which he played in various clubs around the city at the time.   Someone hooked him up with a producer and they put out two albums “Cold Fact” in 1971 and “Coming from Reality” in 1972.  Nobody bought them.

In the documentary, the producers remain at a loss, even today,  as to why the albums didn’t sell.   They should have been massive hits based on the quality of the material.

Rodriguez, for all intents and purposes, disappeared.


In South Africa in the early 70’s apartheid was at its’ height when an American girl came to visit her boyfriend in Cape Town and brought “Cold Fact” with her. (One of the six or so copies that did sell, apparently.)   It was an instant hit among the young people they knew, and they began making bootleg tapes to pass around.  Demand grew to the point that local record distributors began to sell Rodriguez’ albums in South Africa.   A conservative estimate in the film estimates sales of “Cold Fact” at around 500,000 during those years.   Not bad for a guy who was dropped from his label in the U.S. and never recorded another track.

But Rodriguez had no idea he’d “made it” in South Africa.   The royalties sent to the record company never reached him.  The censorship in South Africa meant that no foreign singers were allowed to perform in the country.    Somehow word got around that Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage, whether by gunshot or fire was unknown.    He became the stuff of legend, his music the inspiration for the anti-apartheid movement and a generation of people who knew every lyric to every song.

Then, in the late 90’s, “Cold Fact” was released on CD in South Africa, and two men who were curious about the man behind the music began a kind of scavenger/treasure hunt for information on Rodriguez.   Through much trial and error, they got in touch with one of the original producers of the albums.  (Massive spoiler alert here:  if you don’t want to know what happens in the documentary, stop reading.)  After a discussion of the albums and their popularity or lack thereof, depending on the country, the interviewer asked the ultimate question.  How did Rodriguez really die?

The answer, after a pause, was that he didn’t.  He was very much alive and still living in Detroit.

And so the two men found their idol – the man they thought was dead – still working construction for his living and still playing music, but only for himself.    They told him of his immense popularity in their country.  They asked him if he’d ever received any royalties or had any idea of how much his music was loved, half-way round the world.

The quiet and smiling answer was no.

I pause now, because I want to ask you all a question.  Is this a success story?

How would you feel if you made two albums that, as far as you knew, nobody liked?  If you spent your life working construction because nobody wanted to hear your music?  (Even if you liked construction.)   And then, what if you found out that somewhere in the world your albums had sold massively but you never knew – never got the royalties?  (Somebody did, by the way.  My guess is the owner of the record label, who, in the documentary, did not react well to the question about missing royalties.)

Would you feel happy that someone did appreciate your work, but angry or upset that so much time had passed and you’d never known?  Never been paid?   It’s one thing to love your work no matter how little it pays, and another to be robbed of large sums of money by a dishonest company.    Would you feel a little resentful?

Honestly, I think I would.

But Rodriguez seemed utterly and completely fulfilled and at peace in his life, despite living paycheck to paycheck and without the success his music probably deserved.   Since the time of his “re-discovery”, he’s made 4 trips to South Africa and played 30+ sold out shows.  He performed on “Letterman” in August as the documentary was released.

But he still works construction.  He still lives in downtown Detroit, in a house he heats with wood.   His daughters are grown and living what appear to be happy “successful” lives of their own.  One of them says in the film that her father lives “very simply”.   Which is something of an understatement.   The money he’s made since being re-discovered he has mostly given away to family and friends.

What is the source of Rodriguez’ success?  Not education (he did go to college by the way, but it is mentioned only in passing), not financial comfort, not even – until recently – artistic recognition with or without money.

I suspect that his success comes from within.  His happiness is not tied to anything in the physical world.   This type of success cannot be taught in a school or a university.   It isn’t to be purchased and it doesn’t come from fame.   I think it can be learned, but each person’s path will be different and to a degree solitary.    Is failure a key ingredient?  Maybe.

Whatever the answer, it pays for us all to remember Rodriguez.  Maybe we need a reminder that no matter what is in front of us – what is apparent – our actions may have influence somewhere or on someone without our even being aware of it.  Perhaps we should think less about how our kids are doing in their knowledge of history or math and more about how to support their own individual path to the type of success Rodriguez has.  It doesn’t mean they will need to live without money, or even recognition; it just means that with or without those things, success will be theirs.

8 comments on “Searching for Sugar Man or success of a different kind

  1. Peter Salzer says:

    A beautifully phrased assessment of what makes up happiness, contentment and satisfaction in life. Sixto Rodriguez’s life embodies this in his special way. Seeing and listening to him live in Royal Festival Hall in London in Novemeber confirmed this. His spirit filléd the hall to the enthusiasm of the 2500 attendees – many from South Africa. Peter S.

  2. JoAnn says:

    I know Rodriguez doesn’t want a fight over the money,but, I remember how hard it was, when I was divorced with 2 small children, living on low income, and knowing this company in England, knew Rodriguez had small children, but, kept his royalties, was about as mean as a company could be. So, he didn’t jump through hoops for them;they still made plenty of money. My view is that company should deliver everything connected to producing his records and all rights to his music,via an attorney, (The company does, obviously, have a sense of shame, since they don’t want to be known) and Rodriguez can provide any records The Light In The Attic Records doesn’t have, and the record shops in South America can get a wholesale deal with them. And I think that company in England should be “done” making money.

    • Amy says:

      Hi JoAnn,
      Thanks for you comment. As I said in my post, I think I’d probably feel the way you do if I found out my record company hadn’t forwarded (they say they never received) any royalties. It was an American company, now defunct. But the amazing thing about Rodriguez – at least that comes through in the film – is that he is satisfied with his life – content, even though he didn’t get the money and acclaim 25 years ago. It is an amazing thing, but genuine.

  3. JoAnn says:

    I meant to say “record shops in South

  4. Abby says:

    He is having a concert at Townhall in New York City on Apr. 10, 2013, if you can get the tickets.
    I became an overnight Rodriguez fan after the movie “Searching for sugar man”. His music is mindblowing! I bought every his song, started playing everyday. This article made me think more about the meaning of life. Thank you for the post. What a legend and a wonderful human being.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks Abby, and I am definitely going to see if tickets are available for Town Hall. I would love to see him perform live!


  5. JoAnn says:

    I was referring to the previous story with Malik about the Co. in England, that gets all of the money from sales in S Africa, but, I’m not asking Rodriguez to care about the money or get involved in any action in any way. I’m just saying what is right, as a citizen of the world.

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