Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder – Ebony and Ivory
One of the first songs of the 80s that touched a very sensible social theme, the integration and harmony between human beings regardless of skin color, was released on March 29, 1982. Of course, many years later, no less than forty, today we might think that in those years the tensions related to the color of the skin were overcome, but that was not the case at all. Without going to the extremes of the South African Republic, where apartheid constitutionally sanctioned the existence of different rights depending on the color of the skin, there were still a series of issues in various parts of daily and artistic life, especially in the United States, but even in England, where the political and social elite clearly belonged all to the same group.
In the music scene, we had the case of MTV, that started broadcasting in August 1981 with Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star. MTV was aimed primarily at an audience of young Anglo-Saxons, but music in the United States was made overwhelmingly by African Americans, who were not broadcast, so even young African Americans did not really appreciate MTV. MTV often had to go fishing their videos in England, because very few artists made videos in the United States, and all of this resulted in a continuous audience decrease that was blown away by the arrival of Thriller, so that Michael Jackson actually opened the doors of MTV to African American artists, raising also the fortune of the TV channel.
The story of this song begins in England, on Paul McCartney’s the piano keyboard. He had concluded the experience with Wings, and was working on his solo album Tug of War. And just looking at the piano keys he found the metaphor that explains how harmony can only come from integration. The piano keys have different colors, but harmony can only arise when both are present, and when they are mixed. Apparently Paul had seen a TV sketch where actor Spike Milligan was playing a piano with all the white keys on one side and all the black keys on the other, and of course it was impossible to play.
Working out this concept with his beloved wife Linda, Paul came up with the simple but powerful message of this song. And while he was working on the arrangements, he came up with the idea of making a duet as an example of integration and collaboration, and he immediately thought of Stevie Wonder. Stevie accepted with enthusiasm: the song touched on themes he fully agreed to, so he was absolutely happy to be part of this project. The text is quite explicit: ebony and ivory, different colored woods, live together in perfect harmony, side by side on the piano keyboard, just like humans can do.
To be honest, Paul and Stevie had quite busy schedules, and they couldn’t really record the song together, but they met in Montserrat, British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, to at least record the video together. The video plays a lot on the colors of the song, and often the two of them are dressed absolutely opposite. If Paul has a white shirt and a black vest, Stevie has the same clothes, but with the colors obviously reversed. but the final result is absolute harmony in both a musical and aesthetic sense.
The song was a great success, and it stayed at the top of the hit parades for seven weeks. For Stevie Wonder it was the first time at the top of the charts, however. In fact, past its glory days, the song declined quite rapidly. Within a few months it was judged to be too simple and not particularly appealing, and over the years it also became a target for disrespectful parodies. In reality, the theme of integration maintained its importance over the years, we can think of Michael Jackson’s Black or White which will resume the same themes after ten years, but this song in particular, for some strange reason, had a period of decline. In fact I would say that today it needs to be re-evaluated, not only for having opened a discussion on such important topics, but also because it was the first of many important duets of the 80s (and Paul McCartney would soon repeat with Say, Say, Say in duet with Michael Jackson).
In short, Ebony and Ivory was a song perhaps musically simple, but which for the first time launched a very strong message of integration to the whole world of music, and to a whole generation of teenagers.