Sugar Man

Album: Cold Fact (1970)

Songfacts®:

  • Rodriguez is Sixto Rodriguez, subject of the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. This is the song that earned him the "Sugar Man" moniker.

    The song is overtly about drugs, with the "Sugar Man" being the dealer. The chorus is a list of substances:

    Silver magic ships you carry
    Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane


    Nobody really knows what the "silver magic ships" represent, but the "jumpers" are amphetamines, the "coke" is cocaine, and "sweet Mary Jane" is marijuana. It's a very bleak tale about being in the throes of addiction - the "Sugar Man" is a false friend who will turn your heart to dead black coal.
  • A Detroit native, Rodriguez released a single in 1967 called "I'll Slip Away" on Impact Records, but it went nowhere. He was discovered a few years later by the producers Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, who got him a deal with Sussex Records and produced his debut album, Cold Fact, with the opening track "Sugar Man."

    In a Songfacts interview with Coffey, he said: "When we first saw him play, he used to play with his face to the wall. We thought, What is this guy doing?"

    Coffey was one of Motown's Funk Brothers, a top-tier guitarist who played on many tracks for The Temptations. He added guitar on the album and brought in another Funk Brother, Bob Babbitt, to play bass. Theodore handled keyboards.

    "He was so shy we had to take him in the studio by himself and record four songs and build a band around him," said Coffey. "After that, he got comfortable recording with the band."
  • The psychedelic swirls in this song simulate the effects of the drugs Rodriguez is singing about. He sings the same set of lyrics twice, but the second time through they become distant and distorted, a sign that the drugs are taking control. To build the track, Coffey and Theodore took bits of other songs and played them backwards, creating a strange, disconcerting background bed.
  • This song, and the Cold Fact album, got little attention, and after one more album, Rodriguez vanished. But in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, Cold Fact gained a following that built year after year. Rodriguez toured Australia with local heroes Midnight Oil in 1981, and when the album was issued there on CD, it went Platinum. But after the tour he slipped away again, even as his popularity skyrocketed in South Africa, where he became a legend. Back home in Detroit, Rodriguez got a degree in philosophy, did social work, ran for state legislature and worked at a gas station. He didn't learn of his South African popularity until the '90s, when he was in his 50s and working as a laborer cleaning out houses.

    In 1998, a South African fan named Stephen Segerman worked with the American journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydrom to arrange for Rodriguez to tour the country along with Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand. Footage was used for a documentary called Dead Men Don't Tour, a precursor to the 2012 Oscar-winning film Searching For Sugar Man, which brought him into the public eye in America for the first time. He began performing to packed houses, and his catalog was re-released.
  • The South African Broadcasting Corporation banned this song because of the drug references, with the track literally scratched out on records, making many wonder what was on that mysterious track. The ban was lifted in 1991 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
  • In 2003, the producer David Holmes did an orchestral version of this song credited to David Holmes Presents The Free Association.

Comments: 3

  • Dee from Ljubljana, SiI think I got the "silver magic ships" right the first time I listened to the song and I'm not even a drug user :) Tin foil packages?
  • Another South African from South AfricaI hope one of the big Hollywood studios will pickup the story of Rodriquez someday. He was a failed musician only to found out decades later he had rock star status in the isolated South Africa. One of those, true is stranger than fiction stories.
  • Slr from South AfricaI believe that "silver magic ship" is the teaspoon used when injecting drugs like amphetamines etc
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Crystal Waters

Crystal WatersSongwriter Interviews

Waters tells the "Gypsy Woman" story, shares some of her songwriting insights, and explains how Dennis Rodman ended up on one of her songs.

Prince

PrinceFact or Fiction

Prince is shrouded in mystery, making him an excellent candidate for Fact or Fiction. Is he really a Scientologist? Does he own an exotic animal?

Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell NdegeocelloSongwriter Interviews

Meshell Ndegeocello talks about recording "Wild Night" with John Mellencamp, and explains why she shied away from the spotlight.

Jonathan Edwards - "Sunshine"

Jonathan Edwards - "Sunshine"They're Playing My Song

"How much does it cost? I'll buy it?" Another songwriter told Jonathan to change these lyrics. Good thing he ignored this advice.

Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde

Johnette Napolitano of Concrete BlondeSongwriter Interviews

The singer/bassist for Concrete Blonde talks about how her songs come from clairvoyance, and takes us through the making of their hit "Joey."

Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes

Chris Robinson of The Black CrowesSongwriter Interviews

"Great songwriters don't necessarily have hit songs," says Chris. He's written a bunch, but his fans are more interested in the intricate jams.