Those who have seen Searching for Sugar Man might think they know the astonishing tale of Sixto Rodriguez, but there’s an important aspect of the musician’s story that is now coming to light thanks to a lawsuit that was filed on Friday.
As the Oscar-winning documentary detailed, Rodriguez recorded a couple of albums in the 1970s that seemingly were commercial bombs. Unbeknownst to the Michigan-born songwriter was that his songs had made him a star on the scale of Elvis Presley in South Africa. Fans there embraced his songs as anti-apartheid anthems, and only decades later, after Rodriguez slipped into obscurity and had been rumored to have committed suicide, did he triumphantly make it to South Africa to discover his tremendous success.
That story is premised upon the idea that Rodriguez and his reps did all they could to try to hit it big in the United States before things turned out amazingly different. But a new lawsuit could provoke some questions about those surrounding Rodriguez in the ’70s and details the possibility that those songs released worldwide constitute fraud and copyright infringement.
The complaint filed in Michigan federal court (read here in full) introduces some allegations against Clarence Avant, an influential music executive who, years after signing Rodriguez in 1970 to make the album Cold Fact, became chairman of the board at Motown Records.
By the time that Avant signed Rodriguez, the musician was allegedly already under an exclusive agreement with Gomba Music, a Michigan company controlled by Harry Balk. According to the complaint, “Upon learning that Sixto Rodriguez was signed to Gomba, however, and unable to contractually enter into a songwriter agreement with Avant, and after consulting his attorneys, Avant concocted a scheme to fraudulently conceal the writing of compositions by Sixto Rodriguez.”
“Under this fraudulent scheme, compositions written by Rodriguez would falsely, fraudulently, and wrongly be credited and attributed to other individuals with whom Gomba had no agreements,” the lawsuit continues.
A series of individual song contracts are said to have been worked out with “Jesus Rodriguez, purportedly Sixto Rodriguez’s brother, covering the compositions actually written and composed by Sixto Rodriguez and contained on Sixto Rodriguez’s album, released commercially in the United States on Avant’s record label, Venture Records, in March 1970. The album is entitled Cold Fact.”
Rodriguez himself is not being sued. The complaint notes that he didn’t discover that Cold Fact had sold in excess of 500,000 copies until Searching for Sugar Man was released in theaters in July 2012.
But maybe he should have known. If the album was such a success in South Africa, shouldn’t the musician have realized it through some royalty statements? In Searching for Sugar Man, the issue of royalties is briefly presented and shouldn’t be missed. Avant is asked about income.
“You think somebody’s going to worry about a 1970 contract?” Avant responds. “If you do, you’re out of your mind.”
After the film came out, Rodriguez reportedly hired a lawyer to look into royalties, and Avant told the Detroit Free Press, “I wish him the best. The fame will be over within a year.”
Well, it’s now nearly two years after the film came out, and someone is worrying about the 1970 contract. Adding a new surprise to this saga, it’s not Rodriguez but the first music executive who signed him.
There’s been some previous talk about Balk’s role in Rodriguez’s career. Before the musician recorded Cold Fact, he came out with a 1967 single titled “I’ll Slip Away,” which was credited to “Rod Riguez.” Some have speculated this was by error while others have explained that it came at the insistence of Balk to avoid the perception that Rodriguez was a Hispanic artist. Nevertheless, Balk appears to really have worked with Rodriguez during the early stages.
But now that Cold Fact has been revealed to be such a hit — and presumably Searching for Sugar Man has bolstered the value of Rodriguez’s song catalog — Balk’s Gomba Music is alleging that it is the true owner of those songs and that Avant has committed copyright infringement. What’s more, Avant is also being sued for fraudulent concealment and tortious interference with Rodriguez’s first writing deal. Gomba is being represented by King & Ballow attorney Richard Busch, who earlier this week made The Hollywood Reporter‘s Power Lawyers list.
Avant could not immediately be contacted for comment.