The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Rodriguez Comes In From the Cold
The subject of spanking-new documentary Searching for Sugar Man, cult singer Sixto Diaz Rodriguez emerged from Detroit to become an unlikely superstar in South Africa. J. poet told his story in Alarm magazine in July 2008——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Rodriguez is on stage in a bar called The Sewer By The Sea. The club is filled with smoke, thick almost blinding smoke, as dense as the fog that's rolling in off of the Detroit River which flows by outside. As the freighters go by sounding their horns, the building shakes.
The year is 1965 and Rodriguez is bent over his guitar, deeply concentrating on every lick. He's pounding out a driving, funky rhythm, a hybrid of folk and funk, to a crowd that includes serious fans of his music and serious drinkers. The guitar is acoustic, but it's got a pickup that sends the sound to an Ampeg bass amp that gives the instrument a bottom that can compete with a noisy crowd and the horns of the passing ships.
As you move closer to the stage you see that Rodriguez is playing with his back to the audience a la Miles Davis, singing into a microphone that's set up between his face and the back wall of the stage. As you listen to his somehow familiar voice, you're transported into his world, an inner-city landscape peopled with smiling hustlers, indifferent priests, wild women, hippies, whores, runaways, drug dealers and drunks. His clear tenor voice has an edge that cuts through the night, a melodic, half sung, half spoken instrument that delivers his lyrics with a visceral punch.
In 1969, after years of live gigs honed his sound, Rodriguez finally cut an album — Cold Fact — for the Sussex label, a new logo run by producer/ impresario Clarence Avant, who later started Tabu Records and went on to become Chairman of Motown. Cold Fact and its follow up, Coming From Reality, were the first two albums released on Sussex. Rodriguez was going to be their flagship act, but the label soon went belly-up and the albums vanished, at least in the United States.
Cold Fact got some favorable press on its release and more than its share of rave reviews. Those who have heard Cold Fact will never forget it. Rodriguez has a unique tenor with a tough yet vulnerable quality that immediately captures your attention. He combines Donovan's sincerity, Dylan's grit, and his own dark, deadpan humor. His acoustic rhythm guitar is powerful, but subtle, while the backing band, assembled for the album by producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore included the Motown rhythm section of Andrew Smith, drums and Bob Babbitt, bass . Coffey plays electric lead guitar (he'd already contributed his psychedelic licks to the Temptations 'Cloud Nine' and 'Ball Of Confusion') and Theodore handles keys with backing vocalists that include Joyce Vincent and Telma Hopkins, later known as Dawn.
Theodore's inventive brass and string arrangements, played by real musicians, not synthesizers, are drenched in psychedelic funk, and while they add plenty of texture, they never detract from the vocals. 'Sugar Man' was the first single and sounds like an AM radio hit. It's the tale of a drug dealer with spooky organ fills and an echo heavy violin solo played backwards and overdubbed to give the track a druggy, whacked-out quality to compliment the understated vocal. 'This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst, or The Establishment Blues' is a clanking protest song delivered mostly by Rodriguez and his guitar. It brings to mind the early work of Dylan and PF Sloan, an avalanche of surrealist images that slowly build to a disillusioned climax. 'Forget It', a song to a departing lover, is a gentle blues wrapped in a romantic string arrangement and marked by a disdainful vocal that drips poison and honey. 'Inner City Blues' takes us to the street for a series of vignettes of lost people wandering through the poor side of town. 'Crucify Your Mind' is a moody portrait of a woman lost in the maze of her own illusions, full of insightful word play and compassion. Rippling marimba accents and subtle, soulful horns moan in the background.