Flashback to 1968: Norman Odam is in his Legendary Stardust Cowboy outfit—yellow chaps, buckskin jacket, cowboy boots, spurs, and a white ten-gallon hat—on the set of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In . Dan Rowan introduces him to Dick Martin. “This is a unique act,” Rowan says. “He’s the only one of his kind, and we’re very lucky.”
“I guess we are,” Martin says. “There could’ve been two.”
Suddenly drummer David Anderson, dressed like Tonto with sunglasses, hits his cymbal and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy rips into his song “Paralyzed.” He bares his teeth and strikes various gunslinging poses while hammering away on a single guitar chord. Although he hollers the words (“I ran to my refrigerator/hungry as an alligator/I opened the door, and what did I see/I saw my baby staring right back at me/paralyzed, paralyzed”*), the audience can’t understand them because he’s singing as if his mouth were full of mashed potatoes. The bizarre scene is made more chaotic by his intermittent war whoops and Anderson’s boom-chuck beat. When Odam starts his second song, “Who’s Knocking on My Door?” members of the Laugh-In cast crowd onto the stage, dancing spastically and imitating his howls, and he flees off camera, appearing confused. According to Anderson, Liberace, who was watching the taping backstage, proclaimed, “This guy is worth a million dollars.”
Some might quibble with Liberace’s opinion, but chances are everyone would agree that the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (the Ledge, for short) is one of the most eccentric entertainers ever to come out of Texas. There is no question that the Lubbock native has left his mark on music history. Spin magazine has called his Laugh-In performance “one of the greatest moments of rock and roll TV.” David Bowie was so impressed with him that he took the moniker “Stardust” for one of his own characters, Ziggy Stardust. “The Ledge is a true great of American music,” Bowie told the Chicago Tribune in 1998. “He became part of the many inspirations for Ziggy, and I’m proud to say I still play his records to this day.” There seems to be no disingenuousness here. In fact, in his book David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight, music scribe Chet Flippo wrote that while traveling on the pop idol’s tour jet in 1983, “David... sang the only Superstar version that I’m sure I’ll ever hear of the Legendary’s ‘Gemini Space Ship.’”
Oddball acts come and go, so why hasn’t the Ledge faded away? Like Ziggy Stardust, he is a cosmic persona—except that he operates from an entirely different level of consciousness. While Bowie is winking at the audience as the glam Ziggy, Odam’s persona is simultaneously wild and totally sincere. “He’s certainly a novelty act, although there’s some little bit of profundity in there somewhere,” says nationally syndicated deejay Doctor Demento. “He offers something closer to the soul than ‘The Purple People Eater.’” Though Odam’s uninhibited performing style is as gutsy as punk rock, he considers himself a classic entertainer like Sinatra (well, maybe with a dash of Jonathan Winters). And he believes that one of these days everybody will see what they’ve been missing. Then he’ll hit the big time.
“When I was seven years old, I was walking down the street after school and told myself that some day I was going to be famous,” Odam wrote in an unpublished autobiographical sketch. He was confident that, somehow, either space travel or show business would make him a household name, and according to his old school chum Joe Ely, he studied both topics vigorously, using his “uncanny kind of strange memory” to gather and retain dates, times, and other details about NASA and show biz notables. The extent of his knowledge is on display during an hour-long interview when he rattles off the names of 58 stars along with obscure information that connects the dots between them, creating a sort of superstar constellation chart. “John Denver’s real name was John Deutschendorf,” he says in his melodious baritone, giving quirky emphasis to certain words. “He was born in Roswell, New Mexico. He went to the same high school Lee Harvey Oswald graduated from.” Odam says that Denver studied architecture at Lubbock’s Texas Tech, where, he notes meaningfully, he himself routinely performed. With an air of familiarity, he reveals that he and David Bowie were both born in 1947 and that another one of his fans, George Carlin (who—can it be mere coincidence?—spent some time in Fort Worth, as did he), is “ten years older than me. So he’s got a ten-year lead.”
When Odam talks about his high-voltage show biz persona, he is anything but outrageous. Over lunch at Mike’s Cafe in San Jose, California, his hands remain folded, practically cemented to the table, as he sits up as stiff as a shotgun. “People come up with all this malarkey about all the competition in the business,” he says, barely moving his tense face except to blink nervously. “Ba- lo-ney. I don’t have any competition because nobody has the same personality, same character, as me, and I can do stuff that nobody else—I’ve been able to do stuff that nobody else has been able to do.” Explains Austin record producer Jim Yanaway: “As a stage person, he’s boisterous, aggressive, and unbridled; as Norman, he’s sheepish, meek, passive, and quiet. [The Legendary Stardust Cowboy is] not exactly an alter ego, because this is a character he created when he was seven years old. It’s part of his personality.”
While a student at Lubbock’s Monterey High School in the mid-sixties, Norman Carl Odam, the only son of Utahonna Beauchamp, a clerk at J. C. Penney’s, and Carl Bunyan Odam, an auto mechanic, would stand on the school steps and bang on an old guitar (using only the G7 chord, according to Ely). Often, suited up in his Ledge outfit, he’d tool into fast-food drive-ins in a light blue Chevy Biscayne with “NASA presents the Stardust Cowboy” spray-painted on the side, hop on top of the car,