In 1972 David Bowie released his classic alter ego album, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Iggy Pop inspired the alter ego’s first name, but he took the last name from a psychobilly outsider artist from Fort Worth. At one point in the late '60s, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy was even Bowie’s label mate on Mercury Records, and Bowie later covered one of his songs.
Norman Carl Odam typically goes by “The Lege,” short for “legend.” As it turns out, vacuum cleaner salesmen played a huge role in his quick rise to national stardom from Fort Worth. Raised in Lubbock, Odam set sail for Dallas, but the music scene wanted nothing to do with him. In 1968, he checked into a Fort Worth motel room and tried his luck there. When he went to perform at the Stockyards, Odam had already played shows in several cities with a goal of playing on The Tonight Show.
During one particular Fort Worth performance, truck drivers were heckling Odam. But they were apparently no match for a bunch of vacuum cleaner salesmen who were there to see him perform for the second night in a row. “They were ready to throw those truck drivers into the swimming pool,” Odam remembers. “I guess if they could’ve got enough vacuum cleaners they just could’ve sucked them up.”
Eventually the vacuum cleaner salesmen were knocking on his motel room door. Their office was next door to T-Bone Burnett’s recording studio. A music industry veteran with a storied career, Burnett has produced for Roy Orbison, played guitar for Bob Dylan and produced the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? The vacuum cleaner salesmen told Burnett about this crazy singer and he wanted him in the studio.
Burnett himself played drums on the track “Paralyzed.” “I was singing and screaming so loud that the manager of KXOL radio station heard me up through the floor,” Odam says. The radio station was on the second floor of the building. He remembers listening to the radio station several years before 1968, when comedian George Carlin had a radio show. The manager liked his strange frantic music with snarling vocals and decided he wanted to play it on the radio that night.
Odam was interviewed by Randy “Red Rocket” Hames on air that evening. Listeners were asked to call in and say whether or not they liked him. Odam says he had an 80 percent success rate. His first single was pressed on vinyl and “Paralyzed” was such a huge local hit that Mercury Records signed him after many labels expressed interest.
He appeared on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In that same year. Liberace and “Rat Pack” member Peter Lawford watched him perform. He didn’t get to meet either, but Liberace reportedly enjoyed the set while it made Lawford require another drink. Bowie later told Odam he remembered watching the performance on TV.
A week after “Paralyzed” was recorded, Odam and Burnett recorded another single, “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship.” At some point, someone at Mercury handed a few records by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy to Bowie, thinking it was something he would appreciate. Bowie liked the music enough to use “stardust” for his alter ego’s last name. But decades after Bowie abandoned Ziggy Stardust, he covered “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” for his album, Heathen.
“I wrote that song back in Lubbock when I was 14,” Odam says. “That was during the height of the Gemini space program.” He was thinking of astronauts going to the moon, the stars and Mars when he wrote it. But he also liked cowboys and John Wayne. He developed his alter ego, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, with these things in mind and became an outsider artist and an early pioneer of psychobilly.
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Odam didn’t know he inspired Bowie until he read about it in a story by Chet Flippo, the legendary journalist from Fort Worth, published by People magazine in 1984. “That was an honor,” says Odam. He was driving a taxi in Dallas at the time, but the article attracted enough attention for him to attempt a comeback by recording new music, performing live and moving to California. “I tried to get on MTV,” Odam says. He says he even approached the president of the network, but was told they never pay attention to anyone over 30.
A couple months after Heathen was released in 2002, Odam finally met Bowie backstage at a show near his home in Mountain View, where he was performing on a bill with Busta Rhymes. Bowie played a 90-minute set and then he met Odam briefly. He remembers Bowie being very cordial and thanking him. He thanked Bowie for covering his song, took a picture with him and then the star was moved along by his handlers.
Now 68, Odam performs about once a year. He last played in July for an event hosted by director John Waters, who offered an enthusiastic introduction and seemed to know everything about him. A documentary about the Legendary Stardust Cowboy is in the works. The filmmakers were hoping to interview Bowie. Odam had just learned that Heathen had been reissued on Bowie’s birthday, January 8, just a couple days before he passed away after an 18-month battle with cancer..
He considers Bowie’s rendition of his song to be superior. “It’s got a lot of brass in the background,” Odam says. He is a great fan of Frank Sinatra because he used a lot of horns, so Bowie’s interpretation pleased him. “I was shocked,” Odam says of Bowie’s passing. “I figured he’s okay, he’s good for another 20 years.”