The song was written by McCartney in 1980, following an argument with his wife Linda.
I wrote ‘Ebony And Ivory’ after a little marital tiff with Linda: it was like, ‘Why can’t we get it together? Our piano can.’ You just grab any old idea to get yourself out of it.
Record Collector, June 1997
McCartney had heard the comedian Spike Milligan say: “Black notes, white notes, and you need to play the two to make harmony, folks!” Inspired by the words, he began writing an ode to racial harmony, which he demoed at Rude Studio in early 1980.
‘Ebony And Ivory’ was written as a response to the problem of racial tension, which had been the cause of a lot of friction in the UK around that time. I wrote it and made a demo in Scotland in my little studio there in 1980; then I rang Stevie Wonder and asked whether he wanted to do something. Stevie and I have known each other for a long time. We first met in 1966, after a show he played at the Scotch of St James club in Mayfair, London. He was only fifteen years old at the time.
‘Ebony And Ivory’ was originally intended for Wings. From 2-25 October 1980 the band, in their final session as a five-piece, recorded a number of demos at Finston Manor in Tenterton, Kent, over a three-week period.
At the time the plan was to record material for a proposed Hot Hits, Cold Cutz album. ‘Ebony And Ivory’ was among a number of songs jammed by the band, many of which appeared on Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace.
McCartney initially had just a first verse and the chorus, but by the end of the October sessions had completed the song. Always conceived as a duet, Stevie Wonder’s part was originally sung by Denny Laine.
A demo was recorded at George Martin’s AIR Studios in London in December 1980.
In the studio
On 26 February they were joined by Stevie Wonder, whom McCartney had chosen for the duet. “I thought, well, it would be really good to do it with a black guy and a white guy and really literally show the feeling that you are trying to get over anyway.”
The recording of ‘Ebony And Ivory’ began the following day, and continued until the early hours of 1 March. The song went through a range of iterations before settling on the final arrangement, as well as recording McCartney and Wonder’s co-written song ‘What’s That You’re Doing?’.
More overdubs were added by McCartney back in England, at AIR Studios and Strawberry Studios South. The additions included McCartney’s vocals for the solo version issued on the 12″ single.
We were thinking we’d write something together, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this song that I’d particularly like to do.’ So we went out to Monserrat for the album sessions. George Martin had his studio out there, and Stevie was supposed to show up but he didn’t. So there was a lot of phoning, which is the way it is with Stevie. ‘We’re here. When are you coming out?’ It was always ‘this Friday’.
Then the weekend would go by, and I’d ring him on Monday. ‘Oh, I’ll be there on Wednesday.’ ‘Oh, okay.’ So there was a lot of that. 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.
The 7″ single had ‘Rainclouds’, written by Paul McCartney and Denny Laine, on the b-side. Initial copies of the single erroneously credited the song to McCartney alone.
The 12″ single also contained ‘Ebony And Ivory’ (Solo Version), in which McCartney sang both vocal parts. His additional vocals were likely to have been recorded at AIR Studios in London in early 1981.
In the USA, Columbia Records issued an additional 12″ white vinyl single, titled A Sample From ‘Tug Of War’ April 1982, which included ‘Ebony And Ivory’, ‘Ballroom Dancing’, and ‘The Pound Is Sinking’.
‘Ebony And Ivory’ topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks, and became the fourth biggest hit in the USA in 1982.
The single was McCartney’s longest spell at number one in the USA as a solo artist, and the second-longest behind ‘Hey Jude’ including his Beatles work. It was also Stevie Wonder’s longest chart-topper, and enabled him to become the first solo artist to top the US chart in three consecutive decades.
It also topped the singles charts in Canada, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Norway, Spain, the UK, and Zimbabwe. It was a top 10 hit in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland.
‘Ebony And Ivory’ was, however, banned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation during the apartheid era, after Wonder dedicated his 1984 Academy Award for Best Original Song to Nelson Mandela.
The success of ‘Ebony And Ivory’ was helped by two music videos, which enabled the song to feature on the recently-launched MTV music channel.
The videos were directed by Barry Myers at Elstree Studios in March 1982. The first featured both Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, with the latter’s scenes filmed in America.
The second was for the Solo Version of the song, and featured McCartney alone. It included additional scenes, made to look like a prison, which were filmed at the Old Royal Mint in London on 11 February 1982.
The first video had its world premiere on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops on Thursday 8 April 1982. In the USA it was first shown on Friday Night Videos on 23 April.
When we came to do the video, it happened again. It was booked with the team and the studio and technicians, cameramen and everybody, and Stevie was supposed to show up on the Monday morning or whatever it was, and he didn’t. Getting through to him was a challenge because it would go like this: ‘Mr Wonder’s in the studio at the moment. I’m sorry, who is this?’ ‘It’s Paul McCartney. We know each other; we’ve worked together.’ ‘Oh, well, he’s working and he can’t be disturbed.’ So that went on and on and we were about a week late doing the video when he finally showed up. So yes, it was great to work with him, but there was always this being late thing, not being there. Which I wasn’t used to, I must say.
Paul McCartney performed ‘Ebony And Ivory’ during his 1989-90 world tour, and the 1991 Secret Gigs Tour, duetting with Hamish Stuart. A recording from Rotterdam in 1989 was released on Tripping The Live Fantastic.
McCartney was reunited with Stevie Wonder at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 27 November 1989, where they performed the song together.
They sang it once again on 2 June 2010 during a special performance at the White House in front of US president Barack Obama. The president presented the performer with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, awarded by the Library of Congress.
I’ve performed it once or twice. I did it at the White House with Stevie when I received the Gershwin Prize a few years after Barack Obama became president. What an honour. Some great people were in attendance. Elvis Costello sang ‘Penny Lane’, Stevie sang ‘We Can Work It Out’ and – it was the first time we’d ever played it together – he and I did ‘Ebony And Ivory’.