A lawsuit filed on Friday May 2, 2014 involving two Detroit music executives who worked with musician Sixto Rodriguez could soon provide answers to critical royalty questions raised by the Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. As a result, a decades old mystery may soon be solved.
More than 40 years ago, the then obscure singer-songwriter’s albums failed to gain traction in Motor City, but unknown to Rodriguez and all who rode with him, they became high-powered hits in South Africa, even with those who had never heard of Searching for Sugar Man. In the 1970s catchy tunes like The Establishment Blues and I Wonder, reflections of a decaying American city, became anthems for young South Africans still plugged into the counterculture vibe that followed the pivotal “Three days of peace and music” pop nuke fallout from Woodstock in 1969.
Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact found its way into thousands of South African homes and record stores, its lyrics planting seeds that would one day burst into full bloom in Cape Town as more than 25,000 music-loving South Africans of all ages turned up to sing them with him for the first time. But with an estimated half-million album sales in South Africa, one of the most frequently asked yet unresolved questions raised by the film was why Rodriguez never received the proper royalties he deserved.
The Searching for Sugar Man case, now being heard in the Federal District Court in Detroit, concerns the songwriting rights on Rodriguez’s first two albums, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971). Producer Harry Balk claims he signed Sixto Rodriguez to a five-year songwriting contract that started in 1966. He contends that when Rodriguez made those albums, his new producer, Clarence Avant, made him use a false songwriting name to circumvent the agreement.
According to papers relating to the suit, the author of most of the songs on those early albums was given as Jesus Rodriguez, supposedly the brother of Sixto Rodriguez. Mr. Balk’s company, Gomba Music, is accusing Mr. Avant and his company, Interior Music, of fraud, tortious or intentional interference with the contract signed , as well as copyright infringement. It is seeking “unspecific damages.” Rodriguez is not party to the suit that was first reported by The Hollywood Reporter.
The album artwork on Cold Fact depicts Rodriguez obscured by a low hat and dark shades sitting cross-legged inside a sphere or crystal ball. More mysterious are the writing credits crediting songs to both Jesus Rodriguez and Sixth Prince – a handle crafted from his name Sixto Diaz. But such mystery did little to dampen enthusiasm for his music and more likely enhanced it. Rodriguez’ 1971 second album Coming From Reality and later reissues of both albums would go on to sell well in South Africa where Coming From Reality was released as After The Fact.
Mr. Balk produced Rodriguez’s first single in 1967 and worked as a creative director at Motown in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mr. Avant is an entrepreneur whose past labels included Sussex and Venture. He was chairman of Motown in the 1990s.
What the case means for Rodriguez himself is unclear. Since the film Searching for Sugar Man was first released, he has gone on to tour in major arenas and festivals, selling hundreds of thousands of reissued copies of his albums. One thing that is certain is that the issue of his own share of royalties from sales made in South Africa remains unresolved. Mark A. Levinsohn, Rodriguez’s lawyer said on Friday that his client was “still keenly interested in finding out what happened all those years ago and where the money went.” There is at least a real chance that the royalty mystery may at last be solved.
By Keith Allen