‘Big’ Al Hodge was Cornwall’s own rock star – the Bodmin boy with a voice like warm gravel who could make the guitar sing and was a regular on TV, backing some of the biggest stars of the day. He died far too early, at just 55, but will always be remembered with great affection in the county he loved.
In fact, Al loved Cornwall so much he once turned down touring with Tina Turner at the height of her fame, so they could stay at home in Bodmin, watch her kids grow up and go surfing. His legend lives on with the annual Alstock festival, which returns next month with a great line-up.
It’s easy to forget now but there was a time when Al flew the flag for Cornwall musically – his songs became global hits for artists as diverse as Meat Loaf and Rick Astley, his band the Mechanics were regulars on TV as Leo Sayer’s backing group, and Al worked as a session musician for everyone from Randy Crawford and Linda Ronstadt to Elkie Brooks and Suzi Quatro. He also became one of the first musicians to play solo with backing tracks, proving he was an innovator too.
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It almost never happened though as the young Al was set on becoming a painter and decorator … but then he heard Hank Marvin and The Shadows and rock’n’roll destiny beckoned.
Al’s son Luke told CornwallLive: “Once he heard them that was his decision made. He begged his dad to get him a guitar, so they went up to Plymouth, got a guitar and he never looked back really. When he was 13 his band won a Cornish music school competition – you had to be 16 to take part but he was 13 so he had to stay behind the curtain when he won! That was the start of it. “
Al left school in Bodmin at 16 and turned professional, joining the Cornish band The Jaguars on guitar, taking a step closer to fame with Wadebridge’s Onyx in 1965. They released a number of singles and featured on numerous Radio 1 sessions, moving out of Cornwall, but Big Al missed his homeland and left the band in the late 1970s to get married to Pam and return to Bodmin.
However, the itch returned and they joined the much-respected British soft rock band Rogue, who were active between 1975 and 1979. They were led by Guy Fletcher, who penned hits for Elvis and Frankie Valli (and whose son Justin is known to children all over the UK as Mr Tumble). After three albums and a big hit in the Netherlands, Al was back in Cornwall.
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It was then that they formed the band which would make his name – the Mechanics, with drummer Alan Eden and bassist Dave Quinn. As well as recording and touring themselves, the Mechanics became the house band at Sawmills Studio at Golant, near Fowey, backing all continent of artists who traveled to what was one of the first residential studios in Britain. It was here that fate stepped in.
Luke said: “A guy called Bill Livsey, who was Leo Sayer’s MD, happened to be working at Sawmills. Leo was looking for a backing band for his tour and Bill said ‘try these guys in Cornwall’ and that’s when the Mechanics ended up being the band for Leo for about five years. They were in the right place at the right time. “
The Mechanics backed Leo on two world tours and is a number of albums in the first half of the 1980s, and Al became a well-known face following regular appearances on the long-running TV series, This Is Leo. Luke has a cherished photo of Leo Sayer sitting in the Hodge family’s hedge at their home in St Mary’s Road, Bodmin, when the tour will came to pick his dad up.
“Leo wanted dad to stay in the band but he missed Cornwall and me and my sister Jodi were about five and seven at the time, so he was missing out on both of our lives and our mum Pam, and he wanted to knock it on the head for a bit.He was offered to go on tour with Tina Turner, who was as big as you could get at the time.He turned her down, but he just didn’t want to go out on tour anymore. to spend a couple of years in Cornwall and watch us grow up, “said Luke. “He was a proper Cornish Bodmin boy – he loved his surfing. He lived and breathed it. When he was working at Sawmills, he would go in and do a session and get straight back in the water.”
Luke added: “After his success with Leo, Al started doing his one-man pub show, which was unheard of at the time. He put backing tracks together and started touring around Cornwall and Devon from the mid ’80s. He got bigger and bigger with better backing tracks and PAs. It’s becoming the norm for musicians and pubs now, but they must have been one of the first to do it. “
Indeed, I remember regularly watching Al perform at pubs in Truro in the 1980s and 1990s. Not only was he a brilliant musician, singer and songwriter, he was a lovely man who was always ready to have a chat and a laugh at the bar. “People know him for his music but also people loved him as a person,” added Luke.
As well as his solo shows, Al continued doing session work for the stars, including Randy Crawford and Elkie Brooks, Linda Ronstadt, Toyah, Sad Café, Clifford T Ward and Suzi Quatro. Meat Loaf and John Parr recorded Rock ‘n’ Roll Mercenaries in 1986, a song Al co-written with American songwriter Michael Ehmig. It went platinum and Al’s family still have the disc on the wall to prove it. Rick Astley recorded Al’s song Some Kind of Love, which was a big hit in Japan.
Then came an unexpected turn for the Hodge family. Luke said: “In the late ’80s we moved to the Caribbean. One of dad’s best friends – Derek Fitzpatrick, who he had worked with – built a hotel in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. He rang dad one day and said how Do you fancy coming over with the family, help me build some houses and gig in the hotel? So we all went there for three or four years – we’d go there for the winter and come back to Cornwall for the summer months. my sister went to school out there – it was an amazing time. Dad loved his surfing – they ended up being in the surf now of the day and gigging in the evening. “
On returning to Cornwall, Al’s solo, session and Mechanics careers continued and he was even able to help out when Luke was playing football for Falmouth Town FC.
“We had to play Bedlington Terriers in the FA Vase – the longest ever journey in a FA competition as they’re in the North East. We were looking for a bus and dad was working with Elkie Brooks at the time, who had a double decker touring bus.He got to her, any chance we can borrow it for the weekend? No problem, so the players and some of the supporters ended up going from Falmouth to Newcastle on it. blacked-out bus was brilliant. “
Big Al was playing right up to the end when he succumbed to a brain tumor at 55. Luke told me, “I was just listening to the last album he recorded with the Mechanics at Bodmin Football Club. It was the last gig he played with all his mates and it must have been around that time that they found out they had a brain tumor.They operated on it, took as much as they could out, they needed a bit of radiotherapy, but it was incurable.He fought it for 18 months but went on July 6, 2006. “
Luke, who is a firefighter based in Bodmin, said: “He was young but that week, when I was at work, there was an 18-year-old girl we went to who was killed in a car accident. There’s always someone a a lot of worse off.He lived his live to the full and he always said he didnt want to get old where he didnt know what he was doing.I always smile when I talk about dad – his music lives on. Al Hodge Appreciation Society on Facebook which keeps his memory alive, his albums will be there forever now, digitally, on Spotify and Apple, and Alstock’s been great. “
Luke started the annual festival with Roger Butler, who wrote with Al and worked with him for years. “We had a bit of a party for Dad’s wake at Bodmin football club where the idea came up. We did it in 2007 as a one-off as a celebration of his life. It went down really well and it’s been going every year since It’s not a massive festival, we haven’t got the money for that, but everyone does it for free, and every single penny we make goes to local charities.
“Also, £ 500 goes to the Al Hodge Music Award at Bodmin College every year to help a music student progress their career. Dad loved teaching at the college and other schools in the last couple of years of his life when he worked for the Cornwall music service. They couldn’t gig at the time because of the tumor so they did that instead and they got a lot out of helping the kids. “
This year’s event – on Saturday, July 30 at Priory Park in Bodmin – features Tank The Henge, Joey The Lips, Color TV, 50 Year Storm, DM Street and Rue. For more details see the event website. Go along and remember Cornwall’s own rock’n’roll mercenary.