Gaynel Hodge didn't pick a fight with Dick Dale. He just showed up at Dale's December 8 performance at the Rhythm Room, got a picture with the man who'd recorded his song "Jessie Pearl" -- twice -- and thanked him for the $7.75 royalty check Dale sent him (the first and only check Hodge has seen from the surf-guitar legend).
"Just give me credit," Hodge says. "I'm struggling along here, and everybody else is making the money."
Always in search of a little acclamation, Hodge gets some long-overdue recognition in the form of a Gaynel Hodge Tribute Show on Sunday, December 19, at the Rhythm Room.
Hodge's tale of woe goes back to the birth of rock 'n' roll, when white recording artists like Elvis Presley began recording songs written by black singers and songwriters. The songs became cash cows for the record companies, while the songwriters never saw a dime. "I think it was a conspiracy in the '50s," Hodge tells New Times. "I don't think record companies ever planned on paying people for their songs. I know so many artists who died poor."
Hodge co-wrote one of the most treasured songs from the era, "Earth Angel," when he was 14 years old. The song became a hit for the Penguins, but Hodge had to go to court in 1956 to receive credit as co-writer. And it wasn't until 1997, after hiring an attorney, that Hodge began receiving real royalty checks for "Earth Angel."
Yet Hodge still struggles to get credit for the song. When Rolling Stonenamed "Earth Angel" No. 151 out of the top 500 songs of all time, Hodge wasn't even listed as one of the song's writers. "I've been left out of a lot of things in my life," says Hodge. "As soon as that song came out, everybody jumped on it -- the McGuire Sisters, Pat Boone . . . I got a 'thank you' and they got rich."
But Hodge never lost his love for "Earth Angel." It holds the distinction of being in more movies than any other song (32 total, including Back to the Future; The Karate Kid, Part II; and Superman III). And although "Earth Angel" remains the gem of Hodge's career, he's also played with numerous notables, including Stevie Wonder, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and Aretha Franklin. He was also one of the original Platters. Now, at age 67, Hodge struggles to make ends meet as a musician.
"I'm being offered gigs for $30," he says.
Hodge calls Phoenix his "hometown," but divides his time between the Valley and the Netherlands. He's hosting a show here before he returns to Europe. "I'm making a call to all my friends and fellow musicians to come to the Rhythm Room," Hodge says. "It's a benefit show for me to survive during the time I'm here."
The show includes appearances by Chico Chism, Millennium, Sleepy & Doc, and student singers from the Tempe New School for the Arts. "I'm gonna have some real angels singing 'Earth Angel' with me," he says.
And this time, "the man behind the stars" is the star.