Written by Don Black (lyrics) and Walter Scharf (music), the song "Ben," performed by 14-year-old Michael Jackson in 1972, became the legendary singer's first solo #1 hit. The song has a history related to a movie and a book and was an important song in Mr. Jackson's career.
The song was the theme song for the 1972 movie, Ben, a sequel to a 1971 movie called Willard. Willard was remade in 2003. Both Willard and Ben were adapted from the novel, Ratman's Notebooks, by Stephen Gilbert (pseudonym for Gilbert Ralston). Like the book, Willard and Ben were about a misfit who befriends a killer rat.
According to Jacksons Number Ones by Craig Halstead and Chris Cadman, Donny Osmond was originally recommended to sing the song; later, however, Black suggested Jackson, and Jackson recorded it for the film as well as for an album.
The song was nominated for an Academy Award in 1973 for Best Original Song. Michael Jackson performed it at the televised ceremony that year. (See the performance here). The winning song was "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure.
When "Ben" went to Number 1 on the record charts, Michael Jackson became the first recording artist in history to have a number 1 hit as a soloist who was also a member of a group, The Jackson Five.
Don Black wrote lyrics for such songs as "Born Free" and the theme song to Diamonds Are Forever, the James Bond film based on the novel by Ian Fleming. At the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Black said about "Ben," "When it came to writing about a rat, I said, 'You can't write about a rat.' I mean, I'm not going to use words like 'cheese.' I thought the best thing to do is write about friendship." The final lyrics are indeed about someone named Ben who is not regarded as a friend by anyone else except the one singing the song.
"Ben" is said to have been one of Michael Jackson's favorite songs from all those he recorded. If that's true, perhaps the soft melody, so different from those he sang with The Jackson Five at the time, along with the lyrics about friendship with a misfit, helped make it so. The song's place in launching his solo career at such a young age may have also contributed to it having a special place in Mr. Jackson's memories.
After a long career spanning several decades that earned him the nickname, "The King of Pop," Michael Jackson died unexpectedly at his home in California on June 25, 2009. He was 50 years old.