How Nelson Mandela Helped UB40 to No. 1 With a Neil Diamond Song
"Red Red Wine" propelled UB40 to stardom, but the reggae-infused track would have never reached the top of the charts without the help of Neil Diamond and then the late South African president Nelson Mandela:
The Original Version
"Red Red Wine" was initially released in 1967 as the third track on Diamond's Just for You album. This was Diamond's second release, following 1966's The Feel of Neil Diamond, but the first consisted entirely of songs he'd written himself.
The original version of "Red Red Wine" finds Diamond despondent, brokenhearted and seeking respite from a bottle of vino. Unfortunately, not many heard it: The song peaked at No. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Reggae Version
A year later, Jamaican-born singer Tony Tribe released a cover of "Red Red Wine." Infused with a reggae beat, Tribe's version of the song peaked at No. 46 on the UK Singles chart in 1969.
The track put Trojan Records on the map while exposing Brits to an entirely new sound.
The First UB40 Single
UB40 formed in 1978 bonding over their love of reggae music. They dropped their first album in 1980. Signing Off peaked at No. 2 on the U.K. charts, and the band found fame after touring as the supporting act for the Pretenders that year.
The band's appreciation for reggae never waned, and their next release consisted entirely of covers of UB40's favorite reggae tunes. "Red Red Wine" was the sixth track on 1983's Labor of Love and was issued as the album's first single. Singer Ali Campbell said the band was unaware of its connection to Diamond: "Nobody was as shocked as we were to find out that Neil Diamond wrote 'Red Red Wine,'" he told Billboard magazine. "To me, it was always a Tony Tribe song. He sang it."
The album version of "Red Red Wine" included Astro's famous toasted verse: "Red, red wine, you make me feel so fine – you keep me rockin,' all of the time." The single version, released Aug. 8, 1983, excluded these lines. It topped the U.K. charts that year, but climbed to only No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1984.
The Extended UB40 Reissue
UB40 was among the star-studded lineup for the Nelson Mandela tribute concert, an event held on July 11, 1988, to raise awareness for Mandela's imprisonment and bring an end to apartheid.
The band performed "Red Red Wine," including the toasted verse, catching the eye (and ears) of KZZP program director Guy Zapoleon. He added the longer version to the playlist of his station in Phoenix, and its renewed popularity convinced A&M Records to re-issue "Red Red Wine" with Astro's rap. The song – and the band – suddenly enjoyed much wider fame, as "Red Red Wine" hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 on Oct. 15, 1988.
UB40's single would eventually be certified gold in the U.S. while going double-platinum in the U.K. "Red Red Wine" has been streamed more than 530 million times on Spotify.