Pop music isn’t always an effective way of delivering a socially conscious message, and duets aren’t always as intriguing as they might appear on paper. But when Paul McCartney hooked up with Stevie Wonder to make a plea for racial harmony in 1982, the result was one of the biggest hits in either artist’s distinguished career.
The song in question, “Ebony and Ivory,” was demoed in late 1980 and developed during the sessions for McCartney’s third solo album, 1982’s Tug of War. With lyrics using the piano as a metaphor for ideal race relations, the song seemed like a natural for the duet treatment — and McCartney immediately knew who he wanted for a partner. “I wanted to sing it with a black guy,” he later recalled. “And my first thought was Stevie.”
Phoned by McCartney, Wonder quickly agreed. “I listened to the song, and I liked it very much,” said Wonder. “I felt it was positive for everybody. 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.”
The duo convened at AIR Studios in Montserrat under the guidance of producer George Martin, who helmed the Tug of War sessions, and cut a pair of duets for the record — “What’s That You’re Doing?” and “Ebony and Ivory,” which would make its way to radio in late March as the album’s lead single. (Though McCartney and Wonder recorded in person, their schedules kept them from filming the “Ebony and Ivory” video together — they had to be spliced into the frame via editing magic.)
Somewhat incredibly in retrospect, McCartney was actually worried that the song wouldn’t be relevant. From his vantage point while writing it, many of the racial problems that had been the focus of national dialogue during the ’50s and ’60s seemed to be solved, and he feared decrying racism could be seen as old-fashioned and out of touch.
“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 admitted. “Maybe I missed the boat — maybe it should have been written in the ’60s, this song. But after I’d written and recorded it, you look around and there’s still tension.”
That tension was dealt with in typically melodic fashion through McCartney’s sunny arrangement, which soared to the top of the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic and lingered at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for an incredible seven weeks — even ultimately attracting the attention of Saturday Night Live, where the tune’s somewhat on-the-nose lyrics were lampooned in a segment starring Eddie Murphy as Wonder and Joe Piscopo as Frank Sinatra.