The first thing to know about Sixto Rodriguez, the Mexican American artist who recorded two albums in 1970 and 1971, is that he is as good as any of his contemporaries; as good as Paul Simon, as good as Neil Young, and yes, arguably, as good as Dylan. But the artist he most reminds me of is Nick Drake: same jazzy influence, same dreamy singing.
The second thing to know is that you almost certainly never heard of him until you heard about the documentary Searching for Sugarman, which has been nominated for an Oscar and tells the tale of how this obscure 70s folk rocker was rediscovered after South African fans found him living in Detroit.
For though his two albums bombed in the US, they found their way to South Africa, where their poetic political lyrics struck a chord with the white youth of the 70s and beyond, who were rebelling against apartheid. Rodriguez was as well known there as any of his contemporaries, though he was wrapped in mystery. Rumor had it that he had committed suicide onstage, but he was instead living in Detroit, making a living by hard labor and raising his daughters. It was only when an Afrikaner fan did some sleuth work, finding a reference to Dearborn, a near suburb of Detroit, that his trail was followed and he learned of his popularity in South Africa. Highly successful tours followed, as well as something of a rediscovery here in the US.
Why his albums failed in the US is a mystery; the film speculates that it may be because of his Latino roots; indeed, Mr Rodriguez looks native American rather than Spanish; he could pass for Navajo or Lakota.
The film leaves a lot still mysterious, and some of it shady, like the question of where his royalties wound up and why he was unaware of his African popularity.
But at least, belatedly, this fine artist is getting some attention.