'Searching for Sugar Man' Star Facing Trouble Over Dealmaking (Exclusive)

The former chairman of Motown Records sues Sixto Rodriguez for representations made 45 years ago.
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Sixto Rodriguez

Searching for Sugar Man star Sixto Rodriguez spent years out of the limelight until an Oscar-winning documentary showcased how the Michigan-born songwriter had secretly become a huge star in South Africa. Stardom has its price, though. Now, the newly famous musician is facing trouble over representations he made to music executives in the 1960s.

The genesis of the legal dispute was first detailed by The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month. At the time, Rodriguez was not a party to the proceedings, but that is no longer the case. He's now facing claims of breaching his songwriter deal.

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The original lawsuit was filed by Gomba Music, a Michigan company controlled by Harry Balk, claiming that it first had a deal with Rodriguez before Clarence Avant's Interior Music Corp. got involved. Avant, an influential music executive who would later became chairman of the board at Motown Records, allegedly "concocted a scheme to fraudulently conceal the writing of compositions by Sixto Rodriguez" by having the songwriter credit his songs to a purported brother named "Jesus Rodriguez" for the album Cold Fact.

Gomba sued Avant and Interior for fraudulent concealment and tortious interference with Rodriguez's first writing deal, alleging that it is the true owner of songs from Cold Fact.

Now, it's Interior's time to respond, and it has done so with a third-party complaint against Rodriguez on Wednesday in Michigan court.

According to the latest lawsuit, when Rodriguez and Interior entered into a deal in 1970, Rodriguez represented that he owned all rights free and clear as to the songs.

Avant's company admits knowing about Rodriguez's earlier deal with Gomba, but states that in 1969, "Rodriguez provided to Gomba, in the form of a sworn affidavit, written notice of his rescission, of both the Gomba Agreement and [Harry Balk Enterprises] Agreement."

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The musician is said to have claimed rescission of his prior deal based upon Balk's failure to advance his career as well as Balk's public statements about dropping Rodriguez as a songwriter and recording artist.

Interior says that no Cold Fact ownership claim from Gomba came until May 20, 2013, or more than 43 years after Rodriguez had provided Gomba with this written notice of rescission.

Now that Avant is facing a lawsuit from Gomba, it is pointing the finger at Rodriguez, saying that "upon information and belief, Rodriguez had entered into an agreement with Gomba to cooperate with Gomba in prosecuting Gomba’s claim against Interior in return for financial consideration, even though, by cooperating with Gomba in the prosecution of the claim, Rodriguez would be admitting his own sworn affidavit was false and would be supporting the notion that Gomba owned the rights to the musical compositions that Rodriguez himself had warranted to Interior he was delivering to Interior free and clear of any third party rights."

Avant's 1970 deal with Rodriguez also is said to have included a promise to cooperate in any litigation as well included a stipulation that Rodriguez's royalties could be withheld in the event a third party asserted a claim on the songs. Interior is now looking to hold him to the contractual obligations, suing him for breaching warranties and representations and a failure to cooperate. Along with the lawsuit comes a summons for the songwriter's appearance.

Rodriguez's lawyer was contacted but had no immediate comment about the lawsuit.

Interior is represented by Peter Falkenstein and David McDaniel of Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss as well as Gene Salomon and  Donald Passman at Gang Tyre Ramer & Brown.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner