Rodriguez, ‘Sugar Man’ Singer and Subject of Oscar-Winning Documentary, Dies at 81

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez went from just another Detroit local to a busy second touring career after 2012’s ‘Searching for Sugar Man’

Sixto Rodriguez
BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 29: performs on stage at Bluesfest Byron Bay 2013 – Day 2 on March 29, 2013 in Byron Bay, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, the folk and rock singer who slipped into obscurity until the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” gave his career an almost mythical second wind, has died, according to the singer’s official website. He was 81.

“It is with great sadness that we at announce that Sixto Diaz Rodriguez has passed away earlier today,” the website posted. “We extend our most heartfelt condolences to his daughters – Sandra, Eva and Regan – and to all his family. Rodriguez was 81 years old. May His Dear Soul Rest In Peace.”

A cause of death was not given.

Rodriguez began making music in his native Detroit, and though his records didn’t catch on in the United States, they were hugely popular in South Africa, Australia, Botswana, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. He mounted successful tours of those regions in the late 1970s, but information about him remained scarce, and an urban legend spread that he had killed himself.

In the late 1990s, a group of friends and Rodriguez fans, determined to find out what really happened to their favorite artist, began to investigate. They found and contacted him, a process that sparked a revival of his fame in South Africa, and documented the whole process on 8mm film and an iPhone.

The film they crafted from that footage – “Searching for Sugar Man” – brought Sixto an entirely new level of attention, and this time in his home country. “Searching” premiered to glowing reviews at Sundance, and carried that momentum through to the 2013 Academy Awards, where it won Best Documentary Feature.

Now Rodriguez was booking appearances on David Letterman and Jay Leno, opening the Montraeaux Jazz Festival, doing stints at the Beacon Theater in New York City, opening for Brian Wilson – all while still touring in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

Rodriguez brewed up his own concoction of folk, rock and country music, with Dylanesque lyrics and Motown production; his records were rich with reverb, strings, horns, pedal steel – but with that nervy, naked voice to cut through it all. All at once stripped-down, but lush and ethereal, it’s easy to see how Rodriguez songs like “Sugar Man,” “Crucify Your Mind” and “I’ll Slip Away” could become cultural anthems in some faraway place.

“Searching for Sugar Man” has taken some heat for “myth-making” – for starters, by not showing the entirety of Sixto’s healthy touring career in the region – but it’s true that Rodriguez went for decades not knowing what an enormous influence he had there, only learning of his fame when his daughter found a fan site on the internet in 1997.

Rodriguez most recently toured the U.S. and Canada in 2018, ending a headlining run with a hometown show at Detroit’s Garden Theater. His song “Sugar Man” continues to be a staple tour cover by the South African-born Dave Matthews.