In the animal-songs canon, “Ben” may be the only love song about a rat. The song was the title track of the sequel to the 1971 movie Willard, in which a young outsider trains a rat population to attack his enemies. Eventually the rats, led by their leader, Ben, turn on Willard and devour him. In the disaster-horror genre of the era, this film was so successful that Ben returned the following year for his own sequel. He is slightly more benevolent in this version, befriending a young boy named Danny and helping him to defeat his bullies (until the rats turn on everybody again, surprise). For the sequel, Ben also got his own surprisingly sentimental song, written by longtime composer and Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory music director Walter Scharf. It was sung by then-teenaged Michael Jackson over the final credits.
The Jackson Five had been successful for some time by 1972. But Michael Jackson, like Donny Osmond in another brother act, was the the star of the show as the youngest, and had started to break out with hits like “Rockin’ Robin.” Jackson received this song after Osmond turned it down. As only he could do, the young Jackson adds a fervent emotionality as he sings to a pet that’s always running “here and there / You feel you’re not wanted anywhere.” Since Ben is a rat, this is probably true. But when Jackson hits the high notes in “They don’t see you as I do / I wish they would try to,” his vocal instrumentation is unexpectedly moving for a song so rodent propelled.
Radio listeners agreed, making “Ben” the No. 20 song for 1972, and paving the way for Jackson’s future solo career. It was the first of his solo No. 1 hits; he didn’t have another until 1979’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” “Ben” won the 1973 Golden Globe and almost won the Academy Award for Best Song, losing to The Poseidon Adventure’s “The Morning After.” Crispin Glover re-recorded the song for Willard’s 2003 remake, a foolish effort that never could have stood up to the gold-standard version of rat love songs.