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One was a member of the most popular band of the 1960s; the other was arguably the most acclaimed singer-songwriter of the ’70s. And their pairing became one of the biggest hits of the ’80s.
Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s smash duet “Ebony and Ivory” was released March 29, 1982, and became by far the biggest hit of the latter’s stellar career, spending seven weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100. (His “Fingertips — Part 2,” “Sir Duke” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” each topped the charts for three weeks.) Take away “Hey Jude,” and it’s the longest-running No. 1 for the former Beatle as well — tied with the game-changing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
The song’s theme of racial harmony — if a mite precious and overbroad — is beautiful in its simplicity: “Ebony and ivory/Live together in perfect harmony/Side by side on my piano keyboard/Oh Lord, why don’t we.” And its metaphor isn’t the only minimalist aspect of “Ebony and Ivory”: While the title words and chorus are repeated frequently, there’s only a single verse, which is sung twice.
When McCartney penned the song for his Tug of War album, he knew right away he wanted to record it as a duet. In an April 1982 interview with Bryant Gumbel on NBC’s Today, Sir Paul said: “I had a song called ‘Ebony and Ivory’ that I’d written, and I wanted to sing it with a black guy. And my first thought was Stevie.” He’d been a longtime fan of Wonder: McCartney put a message to the singer in Braille on the back cover of his 1973 album Red Rose Speedway: “We love ya, baby.”
Wonder didn’t need much cajoling. In The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Fred Bronson quotes the singer as telling Dick Clark on The National Music Survey: “I listened to the song, and I liked it very much. … I felt it was positive for everybody. I won’t say it demanded of people to reflect upon it, but it politely asks the people to reflect upon life in using the terms of music … this melting pot of many different people.”
McCartney and Wonder recorded the song together on the West Indies island of Montserrat — with backing vocals by “Theme From Shaft” singer-songwriter Isaac Hayes — but couldn’t make their schedules work to shoot a video for it. The resulting clip of the two superstars glancing at each other while seated on the same stool playing the same piano — and later seeming to interact while astride the black keys of an enormous keyboard — was strictly an editing trick (see the video below).
Produced by George Martin of Beatles fame, “Ebony and Ivory” was an immediate success. It debuted on the Hot 100 at No. 29 and hit the top spot five weeks later, being certified gold for sales of 500,000 units. It also hit the Top 10 of Billboard’s R&B chart — a rare feat for any ex-Beatle. Its popularity pushed Tug of War to No. 1 on The Billboard 200 for three weeks; it would be McCartney’s last chart-topping album in the U.S.
Eighteen months after that song was recorded, McCartney would team with another iconic black singer-songwriter, Michael Jackson, for “Say Say Say.” That Martin-produced duet nearly matched “Ebony’s” success, ruling the Hot 100 for six weeks.
With its rather schmaltzy arrangement, rose-colored-glasses take on race relations and mammoth success, “Ebony and Ivory” was an easy target for parody. It was famously — and hilariously – spoofed on Saturday Night Live in May 1982, with Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy doing their classic impressions of Frank Sinatra and Wonder.
Watch the SNL clip below; we dare you not to crack up.
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