Chaps Schtick

Fame has always been the destiny of Lubbock’s Norman Odam, a.k.a. the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Just ask him.

June 2000By Comments

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, and start his show. The kids would rearrange their cars to face him. Some would cheer him on, others would pelt him with Sweetarts or clumps of dirt, then invariably—before he could demonstrate his skills on the bugle and the washboard—fights would start and he’d have to peel out.

After adding “Legendary” to his name in 1968, Odam filled notebook after notebook with more than four hundred of his songs as well as notes for a screenplay, “Stardust in Your Eyes,” which featured the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Pegasus, and Gaylord, the talking four-leaf clover. But he wanted more than local fame, so that year he left Lubbock and aimed his Biscayne toward New York City, hoping to become a guest on The Tonight Show.

The Ledge hadn’t gotten far when he met up with fate in a Fort Worth recording studio, where he had stopped off, hoping to make a record. Serendipitously, a young engineer named T-Bone Burnett (who would go on to produce Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, and Los Lobos, among others) happened to be working in the studio, which happened to be located a floor below the KXOL radio station. What followed is surely one for the music-history books. “It was early morning; we’d been up all night,” Burnett recalls. And when the Ledge showed him his act? “It was thrilling. He’s an explosive talent.” After the Ledge recorded several tracks, including “Paralyzed,” with Burnett playing drums, they ran the tape upstairs to KXOL’s manager, Jack Murray. It was a Eureka! moment. “This is it!” Murray proclaimed. “This is the new music!” All day KXOL announcers teased listeners with talk about the “new music”; when they finally played the Ledge’s tape, the station was flooded with phone calls, and in a couple of weeks Paralyzed“—despite its incomprehensible lyrics—had become the station’s most-requested song. Major Bill Smith, a Fort Worth record producer known for such hits as “Hey, Paula” and “Last Kiss,” sold “Paralyzed” and two other Ledge singles to Mercury Records. Before long “Paralyzed” broke into the top 100 on the Cashbox charts (although it would peak at number 98). The Ledge was booked on Laugh-In, and appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Joey Bishop Show were scheduled.

Then, a month after the Laugh-In gig, the American Federation of Musicians, which Odam had recently joined, went on strike, forcing him to cancel the other TV performances. By the time the strike had ended, four months later, the Ledge had slipped off the media’s radar screen. For the next decade, between occasional gigs, he picked cherries in Provo, Utah, worked at a Dallas convenience store, and slept in a discarded air conditioner duct behind the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas.

But he never gave up his dream and fantasized about various cockamamy promotional gimmicks that would be sure to lure destiny onto his side. At one time he considered trying to popularize the phrase “LSC, not LSD.” Though he never got around to it, he thought about marketing all sorts of things with his name on them—pink vinyl bumper stickers, blue pillowcases, even pantyhose—as well as life-size inflatable LSC dolls so that every woman could possess him. Why not get himself kidnapped and offer $1,000 to the person who discovered his whereabouts? What about having a birthday party in Texas Tech’s Jones Stadium? Or asking a commercial artist to paint his portrait for the Amon Carter Museum? After all, he was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

Lightning sometimes strikes twice, and it did in 1976, when Jim Yanaway, then a record slinger, featured Odam on a radio show broadcast from the State Fair of Texas. “During breaks I would do interviews with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and I noticed all these people would gravitate toward the booth,” Yanaway recalls. “I’d turn around and all of a sudden the crowd was five or six people deep—all these people were standing around with these foolish grins on their faces. They seemed to be universally attracted to whatever this was. I thought since it was no put-on, I might be able to help him take another shot at getting on the path he felt he was sidetracked from.” Yanaway decided to produce and promote the Ledge’s first full-length album, Rock-It to Stardom. The musicians now known as the LeRoi Brothers were introduced to each other to form Odam’s backup band, and they complemented his shrieks with an impressive, polished rockabilly sound.

When Rock-It to Stardom was released in 1984, the critics were so taken with it that the Ledge was soon booked at Gerde’s Folk City, the Greenwich Village hot spot where Bob Dylan got his start. “Norman did a dance that he practiced with lead weights to build up leg strength,” Yanaway says. “When he didn’t have those on, it would be effortless; he was like Baryshnikov or something. He could do the high leg kicks. He had this costume made for him that was a bright orange jumpsuit. I don’t know what material it was made out of, but it was not natural,” Yanaway says, giggling. “I think it was waterproof!” Odam sent paper plates that he had decorated and autographed soaring out into the crowd like flying saucers. The audience went crazy, Yanaway says: “They were diving over each other to grab these things—falling down on tables, crashing into the furniture.”

But Gerde’s was just a launching pad. In the spring of 1985 a concert promoter in the Netherlands named Willem Venema booked the Ledge for a European tour. This was no small-time deal: Venema had booked everyone from the Rolling Stones and Prince to the pope. Backed by members of the psychobilly group Gun Club, the Ledge, always the showman, stripped down to his skivvies, rode a plastic horse onstage—and packed clubs in Germany, Norway, Sweden, and England. His star seemed to be on the rise again.

That fall, accompanied by Yanaway, who was acting as his de facto manager, he toured Australia and performed on a popular nighttime television program there called Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday, a combination of Laugh-In, The Gong Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. From their hotel balcony in Melbourne, Yanaway and Odam spotted Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who were watching a regatta. “We mingled with the royal entourage,” Yanaway recalls. “Norman had on his outfit and everything. He just figured this was meant to be.”

After the Australia tour, Odam and Yanaway parted ways. Odam moved to San Jose, California, formed a band, and in 1989 recorded two spirited punkabilly records, Retro Rocket Back to Earth and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy Rides Again, while supporting himself as a Lockheed-Martin security guard. His records have become cult hits, and he frequently receives royalty checks from unexpected sources, including CNN and an airline in Malaysia. Last October the indie label Pravda Records released his new CD, Live in Chicago, which was taped in April 1998 before a packed audience at the venerable club Lounge Ax, and in March he played to a mostly baffled but amused crowd at Austin’s South by Southwest music conference. “I don’t think there’s room for people like him in the mainstream,” says Doctor Demento, “but fortunately today, with CDs and the Internet and all, there’s a whole lot of life outside the mainstream.”

Though his band recently broke up and he’s back in a slump, the Ledge is hoping that lightning will strike yet again. He talks about the future with as much energy and optimism as he did in 1968. He believes his friends “can probably swing it to get me on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno; if that happens, then everything just busts wide open…. If I had a manager like the Dixie Chicks’, then I could make a go of it!… I like it when [singers] get out there and rip and roar like Ray Charles. I bet me and him could really get together on a record album. Really rip it up.”

Meanwhile, he’s keeping his job as a security guard in San Jose. He’s just riding through the bumpy territory that every legend encounters from time to time. “Bigger things will happen when I’m on Letterman,” says the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. “I guarantee it!”

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