“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.