The Curious Case of Paul McCartney’s ‘Ebony and Ivory’
The early ‘80s was a challenging time for Paul McCartney. Soon after the death of John Lennon, his post-Beatles band Wings had broken up, and he continued working on an album he’d call Tug of War despite an argument with his wife Linda.
Amid such a complex period in his life, it’s easy to imagine McCartney wondering – as we all have – why life couldn’t be simpler. It’s a massively simplistic way to express the ups and downs of existence, and yet it’s a cry from the heart.
Perhaps that’s why, as he found inspiration from his marital blip, McCartney began thinking about an old phrase he’d heard many years earlier. “On a piano, you have black notes and you have white notes,” he later explained. “It’s no good just having all the black notes because you need the white notes. It’s no good having just all the white notes. You need the two together because then you get a harmony. Two together is perfect on a keyboard, and so my song says, ‘Why don’t we do it like that?’”
It seems incredible that McCartney would feel the need to explain the lyrics to “Ebony and Ivory” because they are that simple. That’s certainly what critics picked up on when it became the first single from Tug of War on March 29, 1982.
Watch Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's 'Ebony and Ivory' Video
Even more curiously, he decided to labor the point by recording it as a duet with Stevie Wonder. And, yes, he spelled it out: “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll be the ivory, so I need an ebony.’ So I thought the best choice would be Stevie Wonder – if I could get him. So I telephoned Stevie and said, ‘Do you like the idea of doing this?’ And he said ‘Yeah.’”
It wasn’t the best song on the album. It wasn’t even the best song from the session: McCartney and Wonder turned an off-tape jam into the track “What’s That You’re Doing?” that remains the funkiest thing McCartney has ever done. Yet “Ebony and Ivory” did have an impact, holding on to the No. 1 chart position for seven weeks and becoming the fourth-biggest hit of the year in the U.S.
Responding to the simplicity of the basic concept (hammered home yet again in a video that found the pair sitting on a giant piano keyboard, although they didn't shoot the clip together), Wonder later observed: “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.”
Listen to Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s 'What’s That You’re Doing?'
It was the first time McCartney released a duet with another top-league artist, leading to accusations that he was desperately trying to retain relevance as he approached his 40th birthday.
The question remains: Did McCartney think he was advancing the cause of race relations? One comment at the time seemed to indicate so. "When I wrote the song, I thought, 'Maybe we don’t need to keep talking about black and white. Maybe the problem is solved,'" he explained. "'Maybe I’ve missed the boat; maybe it should have been written in the ‘60s.' But after I’d written it and we recorded it, you look around and there’s still tension."
While Tug of War was hailed as a return to form, “Ebony and Ivory” quickly dropped out of sight. It also very quickly became the subject of ridicule, with Saturday Night Live airing a famous sketch in which Frank Sinatra attempts to court a younger audience by rewriting the song with Wonder. It’s also been parodied in TV ads and South Park’s song “Black Puppy and White Puppy.”
Watch ‘SNL’s ‘Ebony and Ivory’ Sketch
Wonder’s record label wouldn’t permit its artist to take a lead billing, so instead, he was credited for providing “additional vocals.” Wonder managed to get the song banned in Apartheid-era South Africa after he dedicated his 1984 Oscar for "I Just Called to Say I Love You" to Nelson Mandela – proving that, in one part of the world at least, the song had some kind of teeth.
Maybe, in the back of his mind, McCartney was trying to provide a childlike take on Lennon’s “Imagine.” Maybe he was playing the role of an innocent artist, pointing out how silly the concept of racism is as soon as you understand every human shares similar hopes, dreams and needs.
While “Ebony and Ivory” is usually regarded as a badly aged curio from a world-class artist’s difficult period, it does seem to mirror the central point of the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement: Why is it that anyone needs to say something so obvious? If that was McCartney’s point, it’s significantly more powerful as a line in the sand from the early '80s.
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