Remember When: Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder Topped the Charts with “Ebony and Ivory”

As two of the biggest stars in the planet, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder had to know that any collaboration between them would invite major scrutiny. They overcame those worries by keeping it simple with “Ebony and Ivory,” a straightforward plea for racial unity that struck a major chord with audiences when released in 1982.

Videos by American Songwriter

How did the song develop? And how did a little tardiness almost throw a wrench into everyone’s plans? Why don’t we get all the details on this hugely successful chart-topping song?

A Duet, but with Whom?

Paul McCartney took a break from Wings with his 1980 album McCartney II, but it wasn’t meant to be a permanent break. He intended to reassemble the group for his following album, which would be recorded with George Martin as producer. In October 1980, Wings did demos of a batch of songs McCartney had recently written, songs that would end up on albums like Tug of War (1982) and Pipes of Peace (1983).

One of the songs that the band demoed was “Ebony and Ivory.” McCartney envisioned the song as a duet, and he had Denny Laine, Wings’ longtime guitarist, sing it with him on the demo. Alas, those sessions were Wings’ last, as McCartney found that he didn’t like how the songs were sounding, and also that he had lost his enthusiasm for being a bandleader.

Once he knew he was moving forward as a solo artist, he decided that, since “Ebony and Ivory” was all about race relations, he should find a Black singer to do it with him. Since he had known Stevie Wonder since they met in the ’60s when McCartney was a Beatle and Wonder was already scoring hits in his teens, he immediately thought it would be a good match.

Wonder agreed. The sessions were set for George Martin’s studio in Montserrat in the Caribbean. The problem, as McCartney recalled, was Wonder kept missing his due date to show up. In his book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, McCartney said, “It was always ‘this Friday,'” about Wonder’s scheduled arrival. This continued for a while, until Wonder finally did arrive, and it was worth the wait.

“Then the weekend would go by, and I’d ring him on Monday. ‘Oh, I’ll be there on Wednesday.’ ‘Oh, OK.’ So there was a lot of that,” McCartney related. “He’s his own man. He’ll show up when he’s ready. But it was great when he arrived. It was fascinating because he is such a musical monster; he just is music. You had to be super precise, because any mistake he would hear. He asked if we were going to use a drum machine, and I said no, so he got on the drum kit and he was a great drummer with a very distinct style, and that’s him playing on the record. The whole song is just me and Stevie.”

A Simple Plea

“Ebony and Ivory” delivered a massive hit for the duo when it was released as the first single off Tug of War in 1982. It not only went to No. 1, but it stayed there for seven weeks. The public clearly loved it.

Over the years, many critics have harped on the simplicity of the lyrics, complaining they’re facile and naive. There might be more merit to those concerns if McCartney had set out to write a deep dissection of the racial divide. But his intent was never anything more than an easygoing pop song.

The song provided a boost for both artists, as neither had scored a recent hit of that magnitude in several years. “Ebony and Ivory” proved Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney could co-exist as smoothly as the black and white keys on the piano. Good thing Stevie finally showed up in time for them to find out.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage

Leave a Reply


Universal Music Group May Be Looking to Take Serious Legal Action Against TikTok