Matt Sullivan, 38, is a true believer. The head of Light in the Attic, the reissue label he founded in 2003 with partner Joe Wright in Seattle, released Sixto Rodriguez’s two albums, his 1970 debut, Cold Fact, and the 1971 follow-up Coming From Reality, in August 2008 and May 2009, just about the time the late Oscar-winning filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul began working on his documentary about the Detroit singer-songwriter who had become a cult figure in South Africa as a symbol of the fight against apartheid.
The first time Sullivan heard Rodriguez’s “Sugarman,” from a compilation sent to him by his friend, Irish producer/musician David Holmes, he was hooked.
“I couldn’t get enough of it,” says Sullivan who launched the label with This Is Madness, the 1971 sophomore record by hip-hop precursors the Last Poets, and has released more than 150 albums since.
Sullivan then e-mailed South African record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, who put him in touch with Rodriguez and his family, as the fan tried to figure out how to license the albums and get the musician, who didn’t make a penny from all the bootlegs sold in South Africa and Australia, paid.
The search brought him into contact with Rodriguez’s original producers, Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, and music business veteran Clarence Avant, the one-time Motown head who released the two Rodriguez albums on his own Sussex label, most famously the original home of Bill Withers.
Avant refused to answer Matt’s e-mails or phone calls, but Sullivan’s persistence finally landed him a meeting with the elusive label head, who agreed to meet during a wedding anniversary trip to Seattle. After seeing the kind of publicity Light in the Attic generated for its releases, Avant relented and consented to license the two albums to the indie company.
If there’s a villain in Searching for Sugar Man, it’s the flippant Avant, who brushes off talk of contracts signed 40 years ago, though, according to Sullivan, his attitude belies the fervent belief the executive had in Rodriguez and his music, going so far as to ask him to change his name to Jesus Rodriguez to avoid a previous publishing deal, a case now in the courts.
“Our dealings with him were always positive,” insists Sullivan. “He was real passionate about Rodriguez and Cold Fact. He told me stories about the heads of Universal and EMI laughing at him in the late ‘90s and early 2000s about reissuing those albums. They just didn’t get it.
“Clarence was totally a believer. Every time I talked to him about Rodriguez, he would get really choked up. But he didn’t take us seriously at first until we met face-to-face. I’d probably still be bugging him if we hadn’t.”
With agreements in place that would guarantee royalties being paid to Rodriguez and his family, Sullivan proceeded with the reissues of the albums, as yet unaware he would be participating in a history-making resurrection of Rodriguez’s career around the world.
At about the same time, a young Swedish journalist/filmmaker contacted Sullivan and revealed his plans to make a documentary about the singer/songwriter’s unique story.
“I figured it would never come to fruition,” says Sullivan about Bendjelloul’s project. “It was hard enough doing the reissues. There was no archival footage, and so few people who could share details of the events. Rodriguez didn’t like to talk about the past, or be specific about the meanings of the songs.”
The two met up at Rodriguez’s September 2008 show in New York shortly after Light in the Attic’s re-release of Cold Fact. At this point, Malik began to send him footage and ask Matt’s opinion.
“It just kept getting better and better,” says Matt about what he saw. “About six months before he went to Sundance, he came to L.A. and asked me, ‘Do you think it’s good enough to win an Oscar?’ He never lost that focus. He was so committed. There was something about him that made you believe.
“It’s an incredible documentary. I just can’t believe Malik is not with us anymore. I can’t get my head around it. I never saw it coming, He was such a kind and humble guy. I don’t know if this was something going on for a while in his head, but he left the world with something special.”
Sullivan continues to bask in the afterglow of Searching for Sugar Man, the two Rodriguez albums (and the vinyl version of the soundtrack, which is distributed by Sony’s Legacy Recordings) by far the biggest sellers in his catalog.
Cold Fact has sold 201,000 since Nielsen SoundScan started tracking in 1991, 173,000 of those after the film opened, 98,000 in the wake of the Oscar win. Coming from Reality has moved 105,000 albums, 99,000 since the movie hit, 60,000 post-Academy Awards. And the soundtrack album (which was picked up by Sony’s Legacy catalog division) boasts 152,000 in sales.
“It’s hard to put into words,” says Matt about the experience of seeing Rodriguez perform before 5,000 fans at L.A.’s Greek Theater earlier this month. “People are just so incredibly enthusiastic about him. It’s this remarkable fairy tale story. I can’t think of anything like it in the music business. And he’s here to share in it, which makes it something special. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in his shoes. The whole thing has been surreal.”
Light in the Attic continues to be a player in the reissue field, recently opening an L.A. office. The label just released a second album by another left-field act, Donnie and Joe Emerson, two brothers who recorded a late-‘70s record of “blue-eyed soul, a cross between Brothers Johnson, James Brown and Hall and Oates” while still in high school in a recording studio built by their dad on their 700-acre farm in Fruitland, Washington, a tiny burg of 50 six hours north of Seattle. Another recent reissue is the Lou Adler-produced Brothers and Sisters of Los Angeles, featuring gospel versions of Bob Dylan songs, including “Gimme Shelter” brelter Merry Clayton, originally released on the producer’s Ode Records label in 1970.
But the Rodriguez story, given the recent suicide of the 36-year-old filmmaker continues to play on Sullivan’s mind.
“It certainly adds tragic overtones to what was a feel-good story,” he says. “There’s a bit of darkness to it now.”