At age fourteen my aspirations in life were simple. Obtain $50,000, buy a roomful of expensive keyboards, move to LA and become a god. In that order.

I wanted to be the one whose glimmering keyboard parts transformed pop songs into pop magic. Just try to imagine Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” without the MiniMoog riff or Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You” without the Oberheim intro. That would be me; I would be the one inserting these memorable details into radio-ready mixes. I would be the one telling Quincy Jones, “Q, I think we need a Jupiter-8 pad here,” to which he’d say, “Yeah, I feel that. Make it happen.” In short, I wanted to be Michael Boddicker, the reigning ruler of this secret world.

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Michael Boddicker, early ’80s

In the late ’70s, record producers often hired synthesizer programmers for their sessions. A geek gig for the most part, once the sound was designed, the programmer would step aside to let the session’s keyboardist perform it. But Michael Boddicker was different. In addition to owning the requisite arsenal of equipment, he also possessed substantial keyboard chops. By the time he was thirty, Boddicker had ascended to the top of the A-list, appearing on over 400 albums, movies, and television shows including Saturday Night FeverThriller and “We Are The World,” three of the biggest selling recordings in history. Other notable credits include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Flashdance, Xanadu, and Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Bad. Boddicker’s handiwork earned him a Grammy and an honorary doctorate too. Not bad for a guy from Iowa. But unless you took the time to actually read liner note credits, you’d probably never know the man existed.

Well I certainly did.

As a teenage fan, I reported factoids about M to anyone willing to listen–family, teachers, pets. I bought the records on which he appeared; I saw the movies he enhanced. I even had a photo album plastered with trade articles on M. If there had been an Internet, I would have been the crazy know-it-all running his fan site (not that I’m doing that now or anything).

My obsession became a point of annoyance to friends and family. Oh how they wished I had normal interests, like football or drugs. And then the letter arrived.

The Letter, circa 1981
The Letter, circa 1981

I never expected a response to the fan mail I sent that summer. But there it was. It’s easy to imagine the teenage glee this created. A one-pager on card stock, the typed note included a sprinkling of comments dashed in red ink. For a not-quite famous person, the letter was an exemplar of fan management. And it became the centerpiece of my M shrine. It also produced a flurry of thank-you letters and follow-ups and other errata. “Dear Michael, One more thing….”

A year after receiving this trophy of my obsession, our family flew to Los Angeles to attend my brother’s graduation from UCLA. He had been named the school’s valedictorian; relatives were flying in to meet us. It was a big event. And while I shared in the familial pride, I couldn’t silence the nag of proximity, “You’re going to LA… where M lives.” We had reservations in a West Hollywood motel called the St. Regis. M’s office, according to the motel phone book, was on nearby Wilshire Boulevard. Fate had intervened.

I imagined the next 24 hours. My parents would drop me off. I would walk into his office, present myself and he would be happy to meet his young fan. We would sit and talk for hours. He’d show me all around his studio. It would be heaven.

When I actually arrived (unannounced), his secretary beheld a messy-haired 15-year-old in tube socks and a concert t-shirt. The same secretary, I’m sure, who had taken his dictation, typed the letter, and ultimately mailed what I would regard as my most important souvenir.

Before she could speak, I beamed, “Michael wrote me a letter last year and I just wanted to meet him.”

“Well, I’m sorry. He’s in a session today. Would you like to leave a note?”

I shook my head enthusiastically. But I was moving slowly now, trying to take in every object in the room before being cast out. The gold records, the calendar with the letter Q written into two week’s worth of boxes–“Q” for Quincy Jones (he was recording Thriller that month). Then I began scrawling my message… “Hi Michael you wrote me a letter last year. I’m here in Los Angeles. I’m staying at the St. Regis Motel. Please call me.”

Of course he never did and while waiting for the flight home, I stuffed a quarter into the pay phone and made one last attempt to reach him. His secretary was understandably less patient this time.

And that was that.

***

Today’s keyboards and recording software–including iPhone/iPad apps–provide easy access to just about any sound imaginable. And so as technology evolved, the massively recorded Mr. Boddicker reinvented himself as a producer and studio owner, a career that keeps him plenty busy now. After all, anyone who played on Thriller gets the keys to the kingdom.

I think about what I would say now if I were to ever meet him. I might just pick up where I left off in my fan letter, hammering him with technical questions, “Did you really run a mic into the back of a Prophet-5 to get the Vocoder sound on ‘P.Y.T.’?” I might also ask what he did with that arsenal of keyboards. Did he keep the gear? Sell it? Move to computers? Does he like the soft synths of today? And look, I’m rambling again. Mostly though I’d downplay the obsession and just thank him for the nice letter. His response really was a small miracle in the life of this music geek.

So M, thanks.

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A little side note: a decade after the letter, I would join the touring band of R&B saxophonist Ronnie Laws who, as it turned out, had used Boddicker on one of his albums. I never asked Ronnie about it. I just enjoyed the coincidence.

A sampling of M’s handiwork:

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