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
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
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
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
Climb Up On My Music is at
* 'It Started Out So Nice'
off 'Coming From Reality/After The Fact' by Sixto Rodriguez.