n April, 1985, animal rights advocates congregated on the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as the space shuttle Challenger was launched with its crew of astronauts, monkeys and 24 experimental rats. The demonstrators were there to protest the government's plan to kill the rats and conduct autopsies in the name of science.
At one point in the picture, little Danny, the revenge-filled hero, sits down at the piano and, taking a break from the mayhem, composes a song for his rat pal. "Ben, the two of us need look no more," he croons, "Ben, we've both found what we're looking for..."
"I had just finished work on another film," says composer Walter Scharf, "and was going away for a rest when the people at (the studio) sent me the script to Ben. They needed a song to be used in the last few minutes of the film." Scharf, whose extensive credits include the National Geographic and Jacques Cousteau television specials, admits, "the terms were so good that I just couldn't pass it up."
Scharf asked Londoner and "To Sir With Love" lyricist Don Black if he'd be interested in writing the words to "Ben." "Walter knew I'd written the lyrics to 'Born Free,'" recalls Black. "Since that was about a lion, I suppose he figured I'd be a good choice to write about a rat."
It was Black who suggested Michael Jackson sing the theme song for Ben. "When Michael saw the song, he was anxious to do it," Black continues. "He's quite an animal lover -- very sensitive, you know. He enjoys anything that crawls or flies."
Michael's first solo recording, "Got to Be There," entered the Billboard Hot 100 just a couple of weeks shy of two years after the debut of the Jackson Five's first hit, "I Want You Back." "Got to Be There" peaked at number four in December, 1971, followed by a remake of Bobby Day's "Rockin' Robin," number two in April 1972. "I Wanna Be Where You Are" reached number 16 in July, 1972, and was followed by "Ben." The title theme debuted on the Hot 100 at number 85 and took 10 weeks to go to number one.
There is a sad postscript to the saga of "Ben." In early 1985, a young English lad named Ben was dying of a terminal disease. During his last days, British radio stations flooded the airwaves with the song as a tribute to his brave struggle.
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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