Sugar and the Sugar Man

"It started out with butterflies on a velvet afternoon"*

Even now, as I write this, I still can't really believe the phone call actually happened. So many thoughts and memories swirl around my head like a bunch of coloured balloons, yet when I think about this one defining moment the fist in my mind grabs all their collective strings and pulls them together.

It began in 1972 while I was serving my one compulsory year of military training at the Airforce base in Valhalla, Pretoria. Someone in our bungalow brought a home-recorded tape of the new album 'Cold Fact' by Rodriguez. It was unlike anything we had ever heard and it soon became our soundtrack for the remaining months of our training. During the next few years, 'Cold Fact' became a staple feature of most record collections in South Africa. Most people I knew could sing the entire album and we never grew bored with it. In 1977 I moved into a commune in Parktown, Johannesburg and because two other 'Stephens' moved in at the same time, it was decided to create nicknames for the three of us. My surname, Segerman, was often intentionally (and unintentionally) mispronounced as 'Sugarman' so I became Sugar and the name stuck. I often had people walking up to me and singing "Sugar Man, won't you hurry...".

There was always tons of music around. We went from Dylan and the Beatles to the underground 'Dinosaur' era of Led Zeppelin, Genesis and Yes. Then punk came along like a tidal wave and swept everything away. New wave followed, then Springsteen, Van Morrison and REM. Yet through it all 'Cold Fact' still managed to keep up with the current styles and always sounded fresh and relevant.

Then in December 1994 came the seemingly unimportant event that was to precipitate the train of events leading to that seminal phone call last week. I was sitting with some friends on Camps Bay beach in Cape Town. With us was a woman called Ronit who had been living in the USA for a few years. She asked me if I had heard of Jesus Rodriguez and if I knew where she could find a copy of the album 'Cold Fact' as she had been unable to find it anywhere in the States. I told her that she could walk across the road and buy it at the local CNA, which she did. Back in Jo'burg I began to research the situation and found out that 'Cold Fact' was only available in South Africa. I then decided to try and find the first Rodriguez album which I knew as 'After The Fact' but had never heard. A tour of all the record stores in Jo'burg proved fruitless. I was sitting at my friend Andre Bakkes' house in Pretoria and telling him this when he casually mentioned that a copy of that album was in his record collection a few feet to our left. I thought he was bullshitting me and told him so and actually bet him that he didn't have it.

He leaned over to his records and pulled it out. It was like finding the Holy Grail. I took it home and dumped it onto a cassette and played it continuously for days. I then mentioned to Andy Harrod, an old friend who now owned some CD shops, that I had found it. He told me that just recently someone at Polygram, the company who distribute 'Cold Fact', had mentioned that they were looking for a copy of 'After The Fact' so that they could remaster it as they had mislaid the original master tapes. Andy, with Andre's permission, gave the record to Polygram along with some liner notes that Andy and I quickly banged out.

Then in March 1996 I walked into a branch of Musica in Cape Town, where I was now living. There on the new releases rack was the 'After The Fact' CD, subtitled 'Coming From Reality' which was the original title. Although we had been promised some free copies from Polygram, which we did receive, I impulsively purchased a copy of the CD with the feeling that the events that had begun on that beach in Camps Bay had finally come full circle. I was wrong!

Up in Jo'burg, Craig Bartholomew had bought the CD and read our liner notes. In them we had mentioned that not only were the Rodriguez albums unavailable anywhere in the world besides the odd copy in Australia and Zimbabwe but also that there was not a single mention of Rodriguez either in any music reference book or among the millions of sites on the internet. The man had disappeared. In the liner notes we had suggested that if there were any music detectives out there, here was a mystery worth unravelling. Craig called me and told me that he was researching international artists who had achieved cult status in South Africa but nowhere else. The two main examples of this were Rodriguez and Shawn Phillips. Over the next few months we spoke often as Craig followed every lead and clue. We met in Cape Town on one of his trips and discussed the progress that had been made. The trail looked dead but Craig was determined to find Rodriguez. I was working for Intekom,an Internet company, and we had set up a Rodriguez website as I had been receiving many emails from Rodriguez fans all over the world who could now buy the Rodriguez CDs from our online CD store.

Then Craig struck gold when he spoke to the two guys who had worked on the 'Cold Fact' album, Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey. They told him that Rodriguez was very much alive and well and living in Detroit, Michigan, and that his name was not Jesus Rodriguez but Sixto Rodriguez. Craig subsequently spoke to Rodriguez on the phone and told him about his popularity in South Africa and about our website. Although we were a thousand kilometres apart, Craig and I shared a telephone hug and dance when he told me the great news.

On Sunday 14th September 1997, I called up my email and found a message from Eva Rodriguez Koller who said she was Rodriguez's daughter and asked me to phone her at her home in Junction City, Kansas. We spoke for quite a while as I told her the whole story and she told me all about her father. She also told me that Rodriguez was somewhat of a recluse and she did not want to give out his phone number. I told her I respected that but would be very grateful if she could ask him to please give me a call sometime. She mentioned that Rodriguez would be willing to discuss the possibility of a tour to South Africa and we agreed that we would liaison with each other over the following few weeks.

It was by then midnight and although I had work the next morning, I was wide awake and sat quietly thinking over our conversation. At 1am I was getting ready to go to bed when the phone rang. I picked it up and an unmistakable voice asked to speak to me. It was Rodriguez himself. He spoke with a soft American accent and because the line was clear we were able to have a calm conversation despite the fact that I was practically dropping the phone from sheer excitement. I told him about his cult status in South Africa and that all his albums (including his 'Best of' compilation) were available on CD and cassette. He told me that he would love to tour South Africa as he had completed a very successful tour of Australia over 15 years ago. He also told me that he did not own a CD player but still had a reel-to-reel copy of 'Cold Fact'. I promised to send copies of all the CDs to Eva who would get them to him. He was friendly and warm and we chatted like old pals until it was time for him to go. He asked what he should call me. I told him that my name was Stephen but everyone knew me as Sugar from the song 'Sugar Man' so seeing as it was his song, I felt he should call me Sugar.

There are many events in our lives that fly by so quickly. We look back and see a tapestry of these events beautifully woven into this carpet that stretches back into our past. As I sat that night and thought about the conversation, I saw this Rodriguez thread running through the past 25 years of my life leading inexorably to that moment in time. I thought that the conversation was the final link in the chain that had begun on Camps Bay beach almost three years before. Once again I was happily, very wrong.

The following months saw an upsurge in Rodriguez interest in South Africa. In October, Craig's article "Looking For Jesus" was published in the South African monthly magazine Directions. During the same month, Brian Currin decided to set up his own Rodriguez website called "Climb Up On My Music" as a "sister" site to our Intekom site which had changed its name from "the Great Rodriguez Hunt" to "the Great Rodriguez Website". The Sunday Times Cape Metro section also published an article on how we had found found Rodriguez using the net and the "musical detective" as they anonymously called Craig.

Messages on our Rodriguez intenet web-board began to pour in from fans all over the world. Rodriguez and Eva began to contact promoters with a view to organising a tour to South Africa. Then in early February 1998, Eva announced via email and on the web-board that the tour details had been finalised and that Rodriguez would be touring South Africa during March 1998. The newspapers soon confirmed the dates and venues. People all over South Africa and the rest of the world were stunned after believing for 25 years that the Sugar Man was dead. Rodriguez would soon be walking out onto a South African stage to receive the cheers, applause and overdue adulation that he had waited so long to receive. I immediately booked front row tickets for my wife and children for the Cape Town concert. Up to a few months prior to this we could not have dreamed that such a concert could ever take place. Now it was going to and we, along with many South African fans, were going to be there when it happened. "Sugar Man, you're the answer, that makes my questions disappear……………"

On Monday, March 2nd, Rodriguez, along with his wife Konnie and two of his three daughters, Eva and Regan, arrived in Cape Town to begin his two week South African tour. These would be his first live performance since his Australian tours in 1979 and 1981. To date, Rodriguez has never given a concert in the United States of America!

That Monday evening I was invited to meet and interview Rodriguez at the guesthouse where he was staying in Camps Bay. As I walked in the front door, Rodriguez was waiting to greet me. He held out his hand and said, in that unmistakable voice: "Hello Sugar." He looked far younger and fitter than his 56 tears would suggest. He was warm, attentive, friendly and reticent, being more keen to listen than to talk. As we sat out on the patio watching a glorious sunset, I thought of that little chaos theory butterfly in the South American jungle who flaps his little wings and precipitates a series of events resulting in some major events on the other side of the world many years later. That little butterfly had flapped his wings on a Camps Bay beach in December 1994 and now, just over three years later and less than a kilometre away, I was sitting and chatting to Rodriguez himself. The search was over, my "Sugar and the Sugarman" story had a perfect ending. It had started out so nice and that is how it ended. These are the concrete Cold Facts!

Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman

* 'It Started Out So Nice' off 'Coming From Reality/After The Fact' by Sixto Rodriguez.

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