"Ben" was forgotten hit for Michael Jackson

Before he ascended to his throne, Michael Jackson’s solo career took a while to gain traction and ‘Forever, Michael’ was a commercial, and critical, disappointment.
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"Ben" was forgotten hit for Michael Jackson

by Dave Thompson

Anybody scouring Youtube in search of tributes to Michael Jackson recently is sure to have come across English comedian Lenny Henry’s rendition of “Thriller.”

Less visible, but even funnier, was the same performer’s late-1980s “Michael Jackson Then and Now” sequence, aired on his “Lenny Henry Show” BBC TV series around the same time as Jackson released Bad in September, 1987.

Neatly permed and beaming innocence, Henry opens the skit with “then,” and a few moments of the young Michael singing “Ben” — an American #1 in early summer 1972 that history barely even remembers was written (by Don Black and Walter Scharf ) and recorded as the theme to the movie of the same name. Henry, however, recalled it all too well, for just a few lines into the song, he raises one hand to reveal not the older Jackson’s trademark white glove, but a brown furry rat puppet. For while the 13-year-old Michael’s fans were still happily watching the likes of the Partridge Family and old “Love Bug” movies, Jackson was singing a love song to the murderous rodent star of the year’s most gruesome horror movie.

“Ben” was the sequel to the similarly themed “Willard”; as the movie’s tag line promised, “Where ‘Willard’ ends, ‘Ben’ begins. But this time he’s not alone.” A rampaging horde of ravenous rats, with Ben at their head, kept the squeaks and screams up throughout the movie, and only one person, little David Garrison (played by Lee H Montgomery) understood that, deep down, Ben was as sweet and loving a pet as any lonely young boy could have. That was the gist of the song, too, and Jackson rendered the lament with heartbreaking sincerity.

Ben, most people would turn you away
I don’t listen to a word they say
They don’t see you as I do
I wish they would try to

Presumably, he never watched the movie, either.

“Ben” was the biggest hit of Jackson’s teenaged solo career. Just a year had elapsed since “Got To Be There” ushered him out of the crowded Jackson Five and into the Top 5 alone; six months since “Rockin’ Robin” gave him a Christmastime #2. The Five themselves were more or less unstoppable at that time, and it is impossible to consider Michael’s early ’70s solo output as anything but an adjunct to the family’s stellar success.

Twenty hits, all but four of them rooted to the Top 20, sustained the Jackson 5 through the first half of the 1970s, and they kept on flowing after that, too, as the band shortened its name to the Jacksons, and left Motown for Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label. But still it registers as a shock to glance at Michael Jackson’s chart statistics and realize that “Ben” was his last major U.S. hit for seven years.

Seven years. A decade later, a similar time span would see Jackson release two of the most successful albums in the history of the music industry, Thriller and Bad, while clocking more than 250 weeks on the American LP chart. He was no less prolific in the mid-1970s, but the two albums he released in the aftermath of “Ben,” 1973’s Music And Me and 1975’s Forever, Michael were destined for considerably less success.

While the Jacksons’ first album for Gamble and Huff, 1976’s The Jacksons, was en route to becoming the family’s first-ever gold LP, Michael alone was struggling to break into the Top 100: Music and Me peaked at #92; Forever, Michael at #101. Observing the supersonic heights to which the better-known slices of Jackson’s back catalog rose in the wake of his death, it was easy for a cynic to ask why all these self-proclaimed “biggest fans in the world” did not already own a copy of Thriller, Bad or Off The Wall. How much more rewarding might it have been for listeners and critics alike if it had been Forever, Michael which had gone haring out of the starters’ gate? Because most of those fans probably still don’t have a copy.

Recorded and originally scheduled for a fall 1974 release, only to be bumped back because the brothers’ Dancing Machine album and single were still hogging the spotlight, Forever, Michael was finally released in January 1975, at a time when Jackson’s personal renown was really showing signs of slowing down.

It was true that he and his brothers had done well to outlast the commercial success of their greatest rivals in the earlier teenybop stakes, the Osmonds — who were, in any case, largely modeled after the then-newly emergent Jackson 5, one reason why it’s so difficult to distinguish the Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple” from the Jacksons’ “ABC.” But when Michael’s latest single, “We’re Almost There,” contrarily went nowhere (or, at least, no higher than #54), and Forever, Michael joined it in the commercial dumpster, it was easy to imagine their maker following suit — or, at least, being reduced to the same kind of straitened Adult Entertainment circumstances as were now consuming Donny Osmond.

And then you listened to the album, and it was clear that something was percolating in Jackson’s mind that even his brothers, and certainly not his audience, could never have imagined.

Gone, or at least waving goodbye, were the childlike reflections of his earlier albums, as Jackson set about growing up, at least as much as the Motown label would allow him. Just as Stevie Wonder had discovered as he tried to shrug off the “Little” mantle that propelled him through the 1960s, the marketing machine had a stubborn streak that simply couldn’t conceive of working with anything more than it had utilized in the past. The new album’s sleeve certainly screamed out Jackson’s youth and good looks, and anybody seeking a solid slice of serious soul music would probably have dismissed it on sight.

But two opening numbers, “We’re Almost There” and “Take Me Back,” springing from the pens of Eddie and Brian Holland, kicked the album off in fine style, while the same duo also served up “Just A Little Bit Of You,” a song that so exquisitely haunted the classic Motown corridors that it was difficult to believe that it wasn’t a cover of a song you’d loved and forgotten years before. Several critics even used that adherence to a certain style as a stick with which to beat the album; later, and with lashings of hindsight doctoring their eyes, they would complain that it was all a far cry from the dance orientation that later Jacksons and Jackson records would grasp.

What they forget is, soul music was not about the dance groove in 1974; or, at least, it was, but only within the confines of funk on the one hand, and disco on the other. There was still room, and oodles of it, for an artist to simply sing a song without having to bother about Beats Per Minute; and, while that scenario would shift very swiftly (1976’s The Jacksons is generally considered one of the first true soul/disco crossovers of the age), when Jackson recorded Forever, Michael, that sea change remained unimaginable.

So he did what he had always done well but surrounded himself with the people, and the material, to make sure he did it best. Yes, there are a couple of songs that would not have been out of place on one of his earlier records, the somewhat annoying “Dapper Dan” and the winsome “Cinderella Stay Awhile” among them. But ranged against them, “We’ve Got Forever” and “You Are There” depict a young singer standing on the cusp of both musical and chronological maturity, preparing to wrest control not only of his talent but also his destiny.

Phrased as a letter from, and a response to, a dedicated fan, “Dear Michael” (from which the album took its title) may also be just a little too saccharin for modern ears. But then you compare it to Eminem’s “Stan” cycle, and not only are there sentimental universalities, but there is also a depth of feeling, even caring, in Jackson’s performance that those who knew him have argued was among his most valuable personal traits.

If any one song highlighted just how vast an achievement Forever, Michael was, however, it was one that was initially buried away midway through side one of the album. “One Day In Your Life” was a super-sweet ballad that Jackson described to a 1975 television audience as his favorite song on the album — “I like ballads because you get a chance to understand the lyrics.”

Nobody else seemed to pay it any attention, though, which was why it was so rewarding when it did finally get its due. Six years later, with the media insisting that the Off The Wall album had completely reinvented Jackson as both a performer and an icon, Motown elected “One Day In Your Life” as the title track of a new greatest-hits album and, while few observers ever expected it to compete with the giants of the previous few months — “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “Off The Wall,” “Rock With You” and “Girlfriend” — this plaintively unassuming little song roared to #1 on the U.K. chart and didn’t sound an inch out of place alongside the rest of Jackson’s then-current canon.

Of course it wasn’t a million miles from the fragile beauty that was “Ben,” either, and that inherent musical consistency is something that too many commentators have overlooked when looking over the full scope of Michael Jackson’s career. From “One Day In Your Life” to “She’s Out Of My Life,” and from an ode to killer rodents to the dance of killer zombies, the little boy who’d “got to be there” in 1971 remained in the musical ballpark for a lot longer than anybody expected. And Forever, Michael was less a forgotten stepping stone that a statement of future intent.

by Dave Thompson

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