Written by: McCartney
Recorded: 27, 28 February; 30 March; October 1981
Producer: George Martin
Released: 29 March 1982
PersonnelPaul McCartney: vocals, piano, synthesizer, vocoder, guitar, bass guitar, percussion
Stevie Wonder: vocals, electric piano, synthesizer, drums, percussion
Linda McCartney, Eric Stewart: backing vocals
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 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.
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 allowed 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.
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.