Michael, His Pet Rats And “Ben”

Source: My Family, The Jacksons – By Katherine Jackson

Considering my boys fascination with exotic creatures, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that one them scored a number-one hit in 1872 with a song about a rat. The song was “Ben,” from the movie of the same title.  The singer was Michael.

“Ben was Michael’s third hit as a solo artist, following on the heels of “Got To Be There” and his cover of the old Bobby Day tune, “Robin’ Robin.” It was Berry Gordy’s idea that he and a couple of the other boys also record on their own. (Jermaine had a Top Ten hit himself in 1973 with his version of Shep and The Limelites’ 1961 hit, “Daddy’s Home.”)

I know that being given the opportunity to record “Ben” was a dream come true for Michael.  No only was it a beautiful ballad-if you didn’t know that Ben was a rat, you never would have guessed – but, also, Michael just happened to adore rats.

I recall having dinner with the family in a restaurant one night and watching Michael as he picked up crumbs from his plate and dropped them in his shirt pocket.

“Michael, what are you doing?” I finally asked him.

At that moment a rat poked his head out of Michael’s pocket and I had my answer.

Michael bred rats while we lived in Beverly Hills. We lived in an area where there was a great deal of vegetation, and I’d see big brown rats scurrying through the ivy and bushes from time to time. After a while, I was surprised to see the rats seemingly change color; some were partially white, a few totally white.  Then it dawned on me that Michael was letting his white rats out in the yard and they were mating with the wild rats.

I never confronted Michael about his breeding project, but when we moved to our Encino house I informed him, “Your rats are not coming to live with you.”

In addition to liking rats, Michael loved magic.  At the age of twelve he would blow his entire three-dollar weekly allowance on magic tricks.

He also loved to draw and paint Two of his favorite “subject” were Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse; his sketches of them adorned a wall of his bedroom in our Encino home.

Like a typical kid, Michael also had his fears, the worst of which was flying during a thunderstorm or lightening.

Rebbie:  “After my brothers’ concert in Memphis, they were supposed to catch a flight to Atlanta. Everybody was ready to leave the hotel, but they couldn’t locate Michael. They looked everywhere. Finally they found him-hiding in a closet. He had heard that a thunderstorm was in the offing.”

The next time Rebbie saw her brothers was some months later, in Nashville.  Rebbie brought along her six-month-old daughter, Stacee, whom Joe and the boys hadn’t met yet.  Michael was so delighted to see his niece that he climbed into her crib to play with her… after which they both promptly fell asleep.

And yet while Michael acted like your average kid in many ways, when I watched him sing “Ben” on the 1973 Academy Awards show I was once again reminded of the fact that , professionally speaking, he wa savvy beyond his years.

I can’t imagine a more nerve-wrecking situation in show business than performing on the Oscars show. Yet fourteen-year-old Michael appeared to be no more nervous singing “Ben” that night than he had been singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” Garnett Elementary School in the first grade.

Even the comment he made to me after the show-“Ben” was fated to win the Oscar for Best Song-smacked of a seasoned pro: “Mother, did you notice that in his acceptance speech the writer of “Ben” didn’t thank me for singing the song and helping to make it a success? That he didn’t even mention my name?”

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