I always imagine that the question of Michael Jackson’s first solo number-one single would be a great one to ask at parties or trivia nights. There would be a flurry of answers like “Billie Jean”, “Thriller”, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, and “Rock With You”, until someone eventually chimes in with the correct answer – “Ben”! Of course, I’ve conjured up the imaginary scenario that this someone would be me, but I’ll avoid flattering myself this time around.
“Ben” was originally composed by Walter Scharf with lyrics by Don Black, who is probably best known for having penned a number of “Bond songs”, including “Diamonds Are Forever” and “The Man With the Golden Gun”. He also wrote the lyrics to Lulu’s hit “To Sir, With Love” which hit the #1 spot of the Hot 100 for five weeks back in 1967, enough to make it the top song of its respective year. Nonetheless, Black’s most well-known work is mainly limited to soundtrack songs for musical theater and films. Likewise, “Ben” was written for the 1972 film of the same name – though it was originally written for Donny Osmond to record. As fate would have it, Osmond was on tour at the time and was unavailable to record.
So, it was offered to fourteen-year-old Michael Jackson to record for the Ben soundtrack. Having previously achieved an impressive handful of upbeat #1 singles with his family band The Jackson 5, this would be one of the very first solo efforts given by Michael and certainly one of the slowest songs he’d record up until that point. Despite the horror-thriller content found within Ben, the usage of Jackson’s recording over the end credits helped make it into a bonafide hit single. It made the top of the pop charts for a single week and eventually won a Golden Globe and gained an Oscar nomination.
Given the context of the film, “Ben” is an absolutely peculiar song. The opening lines don’t seem all that strange (“Ben, the two of us need look no more / We’ve both found what we’ve been looking for”) – until you consider that it’s about a boy singing to his pet rat. However, when this context is completely removed, it doesn’t seem all that unusual. Sure, its guitar and strings backing is pretty saccharine, but on its surface it works pretty well as a friendship song in the vein of “I’ll Be There” (though significantly less impactive than the latter).
Overall, though, there’s very little I have to complain about this one. Sure, the lyrics can get a bit too much at points, especially lines like, “I used to say I and me / Now it’s us; now it’s we” and the cloying backing vocals that accompany this. But it’s really no worse than any of the other middle-of-the-road schlock that 80s popular radio was full of. In fact, at points it’s even better than this. And there’s no denying that little Michael really pours his heart out with every line sung in this one. He really teases along the edge of over-singing without ever actually crossing the line, and it’s somehow amazingly effective. The climax of the song, as quiet as it is, comes with his singing the lines “They don’t see you as I do / I wish they would try to”, and it’s at that very moment that this song is somehow better than its reputation suggests. I’m not about to place it in my top five or even ten MJ songs – but I also couldn’t fault anyone else for doing so either.