“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty years.
It says something about Michael Jackson, and I’m not sure what, that his first solo number-one record being a love song to a rat is one of the less strange things about him. Just fourteen years old, Michael was recording solo work at the behest of Motown Records, who wanted to have Jackson 5-related product to sell without necessarily having all five Jacksons. Meanwhile, a movie was coming out that featured young Lee Montgomery performing a sweet song, but the producers wanted a bigger name to rerecord the song for the movie’s theme, and Donny Osmond, the original choice, was on tour with his brothers. That’s how “Ben,” the title track to the sequel to Willard, found its way into Jackson’s hands and onto the airwaves in 1972.
Ben was the tale of an ailing young boy who befriended a rat colony that had been trained to kill in the previous film, led by the dashing young varmint Ben. The critics weren’t kind – Roger Ebert called it “a geek movie” back in the day when that couldn’t be anything but an insult – but the theme song, a gentle oasis amidst the horror that surrounded it, caught the public’s fancy, and they flocked to it like a rat to cheese. “Ben” wound up selling 1.7 million copies in the US alone.
“I loved the song and I loved the story,” Jackson said later. “People didn’t understand the boy’s love for this little creature. He was dying of some disease and his only true friend was Ben, the leader of the rats in the city where they lived. A lot of people thought the movie was a bit odd, but I was not one of them.”
In hindsight, it’s understandable that Jackson could relate to the story of a lonely boy who needed a friend, the story of someone who could only be misunderstood. It’s also understandable how so many could want to record a song so sweet and tender, enough that it could make you forget it was being addressed to a rodent.
Cecil Holmes Soulful Sounds – Ben (Michael Jackson cover)
Before co-founding Casablanca Records, Cecil Holmes arranged and recorded a number of instrumental funk albums. One of these was The Black Motion Picture Experience, featuring covers of songs from such blaxploitation pictures as Shaft, Superfly, and, um, 2001. Another unlikely song they covered was “Ben,” delivering it with a lot more groove than it had ever seen before.
Maureen McCormick – Ben (Michael Jackson cover)
Marcia, Marcia, Marcia! The oldest of the Brady girls teamed with the middle Brady boy, Christopher Knight, for an album of solo songs and duets. One of those solo performances was of “Ben,” and anyone who remembers Peter Brady’s performance in “Time to Change” will be relieved to learn that McCormick performs the track by herself.
Marti Webb – Ben (Michael Jackson cover)
Ben Hardwick died of complications following a second liver transplant, shortly after his third birthday. He and his parents had appeared on the BBC program That’s Life! to raise awareness for child organ donation, and it certainly worked, as radio stations were inundated with requests for “Ben.” British stage star Marti Webb recorded a cover of “Ben” in memory of Hardwick, and it reached #5 in the charts. All proceeds were donated to the Ben Hardwick Appeal. So any cynics who can’t help noting that Webb’s manager was “Ben” co-songwriter Don Black can just be quiet right now.
Crispin Glover – Ben (Michael Jackson cover)
Crispin Glover has made a career of playing eccentrics, from George McFly in Back to the Future to Jingle Dale in Wild at Heart. For him, a reboot of Willard wasn’t much of a stretch. He proved that in 2003, when he played Willard in the new version. He proved it further with the unsettling video of “Ben.” You sure can’t say he isn’t believable, though…
Connie Talbot – Ben (Michael Jackson cover)
“Ben” has become a go-to for little kids to perform at talent shows, especially on TV talent shows. Who could have the courage to be disparaging to an adorable moppet who’d just sung a quivering ode to rodentia? Certainly not the judges of Britain’s Got Talent, when confronted by six-year-old Connie Talbot. It helped that she had real talent; she’d wowed the world with her performance of “Over the Rainbow”, and her take on “Ben” revealed that it was no fluke.
Donny Osmond – Ben (Michael Jackson cover)
Even though he missed out on recording the original hit, Donny Osmond was never bitter about it. In fact, he and Jackson joked about it. “I will never forget,” the singer of “Puppy Love” once said, “we stayed up to like two in the morning, laughing about the fact that I had a hit about a puppy and he had a hit about a rat.” Osmond finally got the chance to record his take on the song on 2015’s The Soundtrack of My Life album.