Vereen was born Benjamin Augustus Middleton on October 10, 1946, in Miami, Florida. While still an infant, Vereen and his family relocated to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. He discovered he was adopted when he applied for a passport to join Sammy Davis, Jr. on a tour of "Golden Boy" to London when he was 25. He was adopted by James Vereen, a paint-factory worker and his wife, Pauline, who worked as a maid.
During his pre-teen years, he exhibited an innate talent for drama and dance and often performed in local variety shows. At the age of 14, Vereen enrolled at the High School of Performing Arts, where he studied under world-renowned choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins. Upon his graduation, he struggled to find suitable stage work and was often forced to take odd jobs to supplement his income.