By Stephanie Nebehay
MONTREUX, Switzerland (Reuters) - American singer-songwriter Sixto "Sugar Man" Rodriguez, virtually unknown a few years ago, opened the Montreux Jazz Festival on Thursday, which American producer and its former co-director Quincy Jones calls the "Rolls Royce of music festivals."
Fresh from the Glastonbury festival in Britain last weekend, Rodriguez gave a Fourth of July concert in the Swiss resort, mixing songs from his two albums that never made the charts with borrowed tunes including the classic rock'n'roll hit "Fever."
The Detroit-based singer, whose lyrics evoke the folksy sound of Bob Dylan, is the shy subject of "Searching for Sugar Man," a film by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul that tells the incredible story of his fame late in life. It won the Oscar for best documentary this year.
"I am a solid 70. I just received a doctorate from Wayne State University. I hear that I am going to receive the Legion of Honour from France," Rodriguez told the sell-out crowd at the prestigious 47th edition, the first since the death of founder Claude Nobs in January.
"I tell everybody that I want to be treated like an ordinary legend," he quipped.
His two albums of the 1970s, "Cold Facts" and "Coming from Reality", had no commercial success in the United States. But unbeknownst to him they won huge airplay and a cult following in South Africa, where some tracks became anti-apartheid anthems, and in Australia, although he never saw the royalties.
Fans at "The Lab," formerly known as Miles Davis Hall, cheered his "Establishment Blues" and "Inner City Blues," emblematic of the turbulent early 1970s and grimy ghetto life, and the saucy "I Wonder."
The long-haired singer was dressed all in black, including a hat and leather trousers, and wore an American-Indian necklace.
After performing "Sugar Man," a ballad about a drug dealer who peddles "jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane", he cautioned:
"That is a descriptive song, not a prescriptive one. Get hugs, not drugs. Stay smart, don't start."
Rodriguez, said to be working on a long-awaited third album, suffers from glaucoma and wore dark glasses throughout the concert as he sang and played his electric guitar. He was helped on and off stage by his daughter Sandra.
He supported his three daughters by working in demolition and other manual labor jobs in Detroit's inner city where he has lived in the same house for more than 40 years.
"Power to the People!" he shouted, right fist in the air, to close the night after singing an encore, "Nice 'n' Easy."
"I saw the movie and know the soundtrack because I bought the film. I like his music. I love his voice. It is very special. You can still feel it," said Joanna Maio of Geneva as she left the sold-out concert.
Leonard Cohen, 78, and Lianne La Havas, a 23-year-old from London, gave separate concerts on Thursday night in Montreux, renowned for bringing both legends and new talent to the stage.
Prince, Sting and Marcus Miller are booked at the festival that closes on July 21 with an 80th birthday concert for legendary producer Quincy Jones.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)