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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ebony and Ivory

This is the tale of two men, both of whom became successes in their own rights, teaming up to create a song that became a number one hit for several weeks on the Billboard charts.  Although their backgrounds were quite different, and they each took a different route to stardom, their duet not only brought them together, but created a song that was brilliant, had a deeper meaning than what it was, and was a symbol of racial harmony.

It’s a perfect song to close off the final Sunday in “Black History Month”.

In the case of one man, he was a member of one of the biggest, most popular bands to ever come out of Britain, and together with his bandmates released twelve studio albums, thirteen EPs, and well over fifty-five singles, many reaching the top of the charts.  Even after the band split up in 1970, this man continued his career with another band throughout the 1970s and early 1980s before that band split up in 1981.  Within a year, he recorded and released today’s featured song with another music legend.

You see, this other man became a superstar despite having only four of his major senses intact.  He was a child prodigy, and signed his first record deal at just eleven years of age!  He has released at least thirty singles that have charted within the Top 10, and he holds the record for most Grammy Awards won by a solo male artist, with twenty-two awards at last count!  He was a leader in the campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday (which was first observed January 20, 1986), and in 2009, he was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Not bad, huh?

Have you guessed our blog subjects for today?

If you guessed Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, you’re bang on the money.  And, this was the collaboration that they worked on together thirty-one years ago.

ARTIST:  Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder
SONG:  Ebony and Ivory
ALBUM:  Tug of War
DATE RELEASED:  March 29, 1982

Nope, that’s not a misprint.  The song peaked at #1 the week of May 15, 1982, and remained on the top of the charts until June 26, 1982, when it was dethroned by The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”.  That’s seven weeks.

In regards to this song, this was Paul McCartney’s longest-running chart topper post-Beatles, and for Stevie Wonder, it was his longest-running #1 hit ever!  But, there are lots of other things about this song that you probably didn’t know.

Did you know that the song has one of those double entendre meanings?  It’s true.  The simple meaning has to do with the music video.  Notice how there seems to be a lot of focus on piano keys?  Well, what do you think piano keys are made out of?  The top keys are made of ebony, while the bottom keys are ivory.  And, McCartney admitted that he came up with the title for the song after being inspired by a quote uttered by Spike Milligan...”Black notes, white notes, and you need to play the two to make harmony, folks!”

This explains why the chorus makes references to being “side by side”, and “in perfect harmony”.

But, the second meaning is quite interesting, as the song promotes racial harmony.  After all, McCartney is white, and Wonder is black, and they’re performing side by side in perfect harmony, aren’t they?

The song was recorded in studio at the same time by McCartney and Wonder, but when it came down to filming the accompanying music video, there were work conflicts that prevented both of them from meeting up with each other to film the video together.  What ended up happening was that McCartney and Wonder recorded their parts separately, and the footage was spliced together into one video.  I’ll admit, the editing staff did a great job, as it’s nearly impossible to tell that both parts were filmed separately.

Here’s another interesting fact.  There was a temporary ban of the song in the country of South Africa at the time of its release...which unfortunately coincided with the Apartheid era.  As far as I know though, the ban was lifted following the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela.

And, one more fact.  While the song is ranked at #59 on the list of Billboard’s Greatest Songs of All Time, it was also ranked on Blender Magazine’s list of Worst Songs of All Time at #10.  So there’s definitely a clear divide in regards to whether people love it or hate it.

Myself?  I love it.  But, then again, there’s very little that Stevie Wonder has released that I despise.  He’s probably one of the most influential artists to ever make his presence on the music charts.

And, considering that it’s “Black History Month” (and the fact that I remember doing at least three separate blog entries on Paul McCartney alone), I thought that I would close this entry off by delving into the rich history of Stevie Wonder, the trip he took to get to the “Ebony and Ivory” sessions, and what he has done since.

Stevie Wonder was born Stevland Hardaway Morris (try saying that three times fast) on May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan.  Stevie was born six weeks prematurely, and one of the complications that happened was that Stevie was born without his sight.  Not that being born blind ever was a roadblock for Stevie.

When Stevie was just four years old, his parents split up and his mother packed up the family and moved to Detroit, where he became interested in playing music.  When he was growing up, he sang in his church choir, and by the time he was ten, he had learned how to play the piano, harmonica, bass, and drums!

In 1961, the brother of “The Miracles” band member, Ronnie White heard Stevie singing, and practically dragged Ronnie over to Stevie’s house to listen to him perform at his home.  White was so impressed by Stevie’s talent that he arranged a meeting with Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who immediately signed the eleven-year-old prodigy to the company’s Tamla label under the recording name of “Little Stevie Wonder”.

By the age of thirteen, he had already scored a huge hit with “Fingertips (Pt. 2)”, which topped the charts for three weeks in August 1963!  He became the youngest artist ever to have a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, a record that to this day remains unbroken.  The following year, Wonder made his feature film debut in the 1964 film “Muscle Beach Party”.  And, by 1965, he had dropped the “Little” from his stage name, and continued to make history by scoring one hit right after another.  Most teenagers were content hanging out at the drive-in theatre, going to school dances, and sharing a chocolate shake at the malt shop...but then again, Stevie Wonder was anything but your typical teenager. 

Would you like to know some of the songs that became huge hits during his teenage years?  Well, there was 1966’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, which hit #3, there was 1967’s “I Was Made To Love Her”, which charted at #2, and the peak position for “My Cherie Amour” was #4 in 1969.  And, those are just three singles in Stevie’s huge catalogue!  All three of them peaking within the Top 5, all before Stevie turned twenty.  That is phenomenal.

As if recording vocals for his own songs wasn’t enough, Stevie Wonder was responsible for coming up with the background music for the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles single “The Tears of a Clown”, which was released in September 1970.  So, he not only had hits by himself, but he helped other artists come up with their own successes on the charts.  Is there anything that Stevie Wonder couldn’t do?

His success continued throughout the 1970s.  He had a #3 hit with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”, back-to-back #1 singles with 1972’s “Superstition”, and 1973’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, another #1 hit came courtesy of his collaboration with the Jackson Five on the single “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”, and he once again had back-to-back #1’s in 1977 with “I Wish” and “Sir Duke”.

And, this brings us to the year 1982, and his collaboration with Paul McCartney, which would become Stevie’s seventh #1 hit!  

I think I can state with absolute certainty that Stevie Wonder did not let his inability to see stop him from having a rich, rewarding career in the music industry.  And, just going back to the theme of “Ebony and Ivory”, I believe that Stevie Wonder helped encourage other young artists of all racial backgrounds realize that there was a door open for them to achieve their dreams.  It didn’t matter whether you were black or white, it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, and it didn’t matter if you had the ability to see or not...if Stevie Wonder managed to find a way to make his dreams come true when the odds were against him, then that should give anyone the strength and courage to pursue their goals and dreams that they themselves have.

Stevie Wonder’s career continues well after the release of “Ebony and Ivory”.  I still remember being a kid and hearing “I Just Called To Say I Love You” on the radio at least a dozen times a day.  And, why wouldn’t it have was his eighth #1 single.  “Part-Time Lover” became his ninth, and the collaboration that he did with Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Gladys Knight (That’s What Friends Are For) hit #1 as well.

And, well...I suppose if you wanted to stretch things a bit, you could argue that his contribution to U.S.A. for Africa’s “We Are The World” was his eleventh #1 hit...although he shared the honour with at least thirty other artists.  Maybe we’ll call it ten and a half?

At any rate, there’s one final footnote that I want to make before I close off this blog for another day.  When it came down to performing the single “Ebony and Ivory” live in concert, both McCartney and Wonder performed the single during their tours following the release of the single, but they never performed the single live together...

...that is until 2011 when they performed the single together for the first time in twenty-nine years at the White House in Washington D.C.

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