In November 1968, ironically, the Ledge managed to follow in the footsteps of Tiny Tim by appearing on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. SPIN proclaimed the Ledge’s performance of his "hit" single among the "25 Greatest Musical Moments in TV History." It could have been -- and in certain ways was -- a celebratory experience. But some of Odam’s friends watching back in Texas were disgusted at what they considered the coast-to-coast humiliation of their guileless chum.
"Paralyzed" was accompanied by Dan Rowan’s snide remarks and Dick Martin’s slapstick mimicry. Norman just wanted to play his song, and seemed visibly irked at the revelry taking place at his expense. Amid this hilarity, Martin asked his guest to perform another song. Odam kicked into the single’s B-side, "Who’s Knocking On My Door" -- just as the zany Laugh-In cast emerged from the wings and began clowning on-camera, imitating the Ledge’s spastic dance moves and making a mockery of his performance (well, it was a comedy show).
"I was confused," the Ledge told me in a phone interview. "I finally got mad and ran off the set. That wasn't part of the act."
Nonetheless, Lubbock’s most eccentric export had launched a chart-climbing record and caused pandemonium on the nation’s top-rated TV show. Offers quickly followed for appearances on American Bandstand, The Joey Bishop Show, and Ed Sullivan. The "legendary" part of his name seemed assured; the "star" part was imminent.
Unfortunately, within a short while, his dreams were "dust."
Just as the Ledge was set to collect dividends on years of dues paying, a musicians’ strike imposed a network ban on live music. Because he'd played guitar on national TV, the Ledge was categorized "union." The variety show offers were postponed.
By the time the strike was over, so was "Paralyzed." It was off the charts. Two followup singles flopped. Doppler-like, the Ledge zoomed off the nation's cultural radar as quickly as he’d arrived.
In the aftermath of fleeting fame, the Ledge parted ways with an unscrupulous manager. Mercury Records dropped him. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and jailed on a trumped-up vagrancy charge. He then learned that Major Bill had purloined a tape of 50 new songs Odam had recorded at T-Bone’s studio. Determined to reclaim his work, the Ledge broke into the Major’s office and retrieved the goods. "I went down to a studio and had the master tape run off onto a 7" reel," he recalled. "At the house, I played the songs through, wrote them down on paper, then unraveled the tape down the middle of Henderson Street in Fort Worth so Major Bill -- and nobody else -- could get their hands on my music." He later burned the song sheets. "He can’t get ‘em now," Odam smiled to a friend, "but I still remember ‘em."
Next stop was Las Vegas, where he met DJ-entrepreneur James Yanaway, a sincere admirer. "Nobody made the Ledge. He is what he is," noted Yanaway. "There were a few people who were appreciative of what he was doing, and many more who were exploitative. I felt, this guy needs a fair shake." Yanaway had a new label, Amazing Records, for which he recorded the Ledge’s first full-length album, Rock-It to Stardom (1984). Unlike the skeletal instrumentation on his early singles, this recording (and all his later waxings) employed a band -- a cookin’ crew. Technique remained parked in the lobby; spontaneity was the prime directive. "He would just start a song," said session drummer Mike Buck, "He wouldn’t tell us what key or anything. He’d just start singing, and we’d start playing. Some of it turned out all right, considering the chaotic conditions it was recorded under." The album includes a new version of "Paralyzed," recorded in 1981 with the LeRoi Brothers. As re-makes go, it’s nearly as vigorous as the original.
Besides an aversion to melody, genteel stage manners don’t rank high on the Ledge’s list of concerns. He played New York’s Folk City around 1985. Diesel Only Records honcho Jeremy Tepper recalled, "The Ledge bounded out of the basement dressing room with a stack of paper plates that he began flinging at the audience frisbee-style. Each of these flying saucers was personalized with colorful Crayola drawings of cacti and desert sunsets." It was just one of several "talents" on display that evening. "Over the course of the show," said dB’s drummer/singer Will Rigby, "the Ledge stripped down to his white jockey briefs and cowboy boots, an entertainment gambit not necessarily suited to the music -- or his physique. After getting down to scantily-cladness, he was pumping his crotch inches from the face of my friend Naomi, seated at the front table. She's got a good sense of humor and didn't run screaming, but she told me later she was mortified. Or perhaps terrified? He was outside, all right."
Odam left Amazing Records in disillusionment in 1985. The biggest disappointment, Yanaway admitted, was that "I had not gotten him on the Tonight Show." The Ledge didn’t just want to appear -- he longed to be guest host. Yanaway realized there wasn’t much he could do for his client. They parted ways.
A crew of San Francisco-based musicians undertook the honor of backing the Ledge in his Bay area debut in early 1986. Later that year they joined him in the studio to record the album Retro Rocket Back to Earth for Spider Records. The repertoire is largely first-take, sloppy but spirited, with no overdubs. Our lost-in-space cowpoke betrays his Luddite leanings, proclaiming in one song title, "I Hate CDs," though it’s perhaps less the technology than certain personalities associated with it. "I hate those CDs that Bruce Springsteen put out," the Ledge howls, "He’s the number one reason why I hate CDs." The same entourage recorded The Legendary Stardust Cowboy Rides Again, but they couldn’t find an American company that would touch it. (The album was released on France’s New Rose in 1990.)
Aside from a few subsequent singles for Norton Records, not much has been heard from the Ledge in recent years. His fans, however, are committed to preserving his legacy. Besides putting pressure on her car’s accelerator pedal, the Ledge impelled Diana Mercer (now divorced from her speed-prone husband) to undertake creation of a website dedicated to her favorite musical wrecking ball.
There’s also a documentary in the can: Cotton Pickin’ Smash! The Story of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Directed by Philputt, it contains photos from the early years, anecdotes from the Ledge’s illustrious circle of friends, the Laugh-In debacle, live club footage, and copious chat from the notorious fun-slinger himself. "When we started, we weren’t sure if anybody would talk to us," Philputt admitted. "I had to reassure people I wasn’t doing this as a joke or to ridicule him. But almost to a ‘T’ everyone I contacted was ecstatic that we were doing this. Except his family. They were no help at all. They asked us not to do it."
The project took eight years to complete. At a cost of $22,000, it drove Philputt into bankruptcy (in 1992 he declared debts of $23,300, and assets of $425) -- after which he remarked: "I’m glad it’s done." It may be dead as well. The owners of Laugh-In quoted an astronomical fee for use of the TV footage. "They wanted seven or eight thousand dollars per thirty seconds," explained Philputt, who has pretty much conceded defeat.
Nowadays, the Ledge lives in San Jose and works in Santa Clara for defense contractor Lockheed-Martin as a security guard. "Got a top secret clearance," he revealed. "They designed the Pathfinder spacecraft that landed on Mars." Odam's a meteorology freak -- his TV is constantly tuned to the Weather Channel. Despite his hatred of CDs, he bought a deck, primarily to listen to his favorite singers: Barbra Streisand, Dinah Washington, and Barry Manilow. "And don't forget Sinatra," the Ledge advised. "He's #1."
The cowboy with the chili-seared synapses doesn’t have much money. "It sure would be nice if David Bowie would pay me something for using part of my name in ‘Ziggie [sic] Stardust’," he wrote to webmistress Diana.
He rarely performs in public anymore. And despite his loyal following, the Ledge will always be a taste some folks never acquire. Guitarist Frank Novicki recalled that after one gig, the club owner came to pay the band. "He gave me the money and a good long hard look. Very judgmental," Novicki explained. "He says, ‘Are you related to [the Ledge]?’ I said, ‘No, I just play guitar.’ Then he said, ‘That is the worst shit I’ve ever heard in my life. Here’s your money.’ I didn’t feel like debating the point. There’s a lot worse shit."
Novicki trusts his ears and his heart. "Norman can’t carry a tune, and he doesn’t really sing in time," he attested, "but you don’t have to know any of that stuff to be good at music. Boy, is he proof of that."
Artist and longtime admirer Kevin Teare admits it’s not easy evangelizing for the Ledge. "Over the years, the people I’ve played ‘Paralyzed’ for -- generally the more they knew about music, the better they liked the record," he discovered. "When you play it, some people think you’re trying to goof on them. If you don’t know a lot about music, you might think it’s just a joke. But in terms of the spontaneity of the recording -- it’s completely lo-fi, the drums are recorded in a way that the signal’s breaking up. He crosses a lot of lines in terms of what would be thought of as ‘quality.’ A painter named Hans Hoffman once said, ‘Quality is synonymous with the spirit in which something is made.’ And I like the spirit in which this record was made."
The Ledge puts it all in perspective: "Music critics and record reviewers the world over have written about me: that I can’t sing, that I can’t play the guitar, that I don’t know how to carry a tune. Well, neither can Kenny Rogers nor Mick Jagger. All of us are in the same boat."
Post-script from Jim Yanaway:
There are a couple of minor corrections I would point out concerning the recordings I did with Ledge
for the Rock-It To Stardom LP. It says in the article I made contact with Ledge after he had relocated to Las Vegas. Actually, I met him in Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas in 1976, and our recordings were done in
Grand Prairie, Texas. Also, it says The LeRoi Brothers backed him on an updated version of "Paralyzed." That is largely correct, but in reality the studio personnel backing Ledge was not an actual group at that time,
and they worked so well together in the studio that they then did form a group and became known as The LeRoi Brothers.
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