Ebony & Ivory – We Can Work It Out: A parallel history between the two greatest (and forever connected) single artists of all time!


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In trying to come up with a topic for this week’s article, I kept thinking about the recent Grammy all-star tribute to Stevie Wonder, the musical genius whose career has all of a sudden resurged with his current “Songs In The Key of Life” tour (which I was blessed to be able to see live a few months ago).

And then I thought about the even more unexpected current Billboard chart successes of Sir Paul McCartney, whose appearance on Kanye West’s top-40 single, “Only One” recently prompted the whole “who is Paul McCartney?” hubbub on social media outlets.  He has followed that up with the current top-10 hit, “FourFiveSeconds,” on which McCartney and West are joined by pop superstar Rihanna.

But aside from the “what year is this anyway?” aspect of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s newfound relevance, all of the recent attention given these two icons reminded me of just how closely paralleled their careers really are.  Their respective accomplishments in the pop and R&B arenas over the past half century are already well documented, and in researching them, I’ve found some uncanny coincidences (or not so much coincidences) that seemingly have linked these two musical icons for decades.

Their connections are almost mystical in nature: some coincidental – like parallel chart runs of key singles in both their careers; and some intentional – like the cheesy duet they recorded in 1982, “Ebony and Ivory.”  And some simply have to do with their relative perches in musical history, because the heights they’ve each scaled on the American pop and R&B charts have been unmatched by any other two artists.

Now there are some notable differences in how each has achieved his success.  For example, Stevie has never been a member of any group (aside from his one-off roles with Dionne & Friends and USA For Africa), and Paul has never truly had a Number One song as a solo artist (“Coming Up” was alternately listed as being by Paul McCartney and later Paul McCartney & Wings in 1980).  All of his remaining chart toppers were with the Beatles, Wings, or as duets with his wife, Linda, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson.

But what you’re about to read is an accounting of the parallels between Sir Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, and by the end of the article, it may have you believing that their paths were destined to cross 33 years ago when they recorded that ultimate opus to racial harmony.

I’ll get my bias out of the way first: Stevie Wonder is my favorite artist of all time.  My unwavering fandom was cemented by the impressive stream of landmark classic albums he churned out in the 1970s, all of which my mother bought and I was forced to listen to repeatedly (until I began to appreciate them myself and no more forcing was necessary).

His genius had been truly realized after he creatively abandoned music written and produced by the Motown stable of music makers and began writing and producing his own stuff for the label.

Wonder’s award-winning and record-setting achievements in the 1970s followed an already successful career in the 1960s and they preceded his continued commercial relevance in the 1980s and beyond while he created some of the most memorable songs in music history.

Then there’s Sir James Paul McCartney (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997 for his contributions to music).  McCartney was a member of the most important rock band in history, the Beatles, and was the most successful former member of the group in the decades after their 1970 breakup, based on his singles and album chart performances as a member of his ‘70s band, Wings, as a solo artist, and in various duets.

Except for the people who really don’t know who Paul McCartney is (and yes, there are some out there who don’t), there really isn’t a need to explain how important the Beatles were to modern music and how significant Paul’s contributions were to the band’s success.  Their story is legendary and can be found in many books or online.  So I’ll spare you the details and offer that you Google Paul McCartney if you fall into that category of people who had to ask.

What is important to note is the mutual respect these two artists, Paul and Stevie, have for each other.  And although their well-documented partnership could serve as a case study in racial harmony, particularly as we end African-American History month and approach the 33rd anniversary of the release of “Ebony And Ivory,” this story is more about the historically significant musical aspects of their long careers and the resultant admiration afforded by each to the other.

For example, in last week’s Grammy salute to Stevie, Paul is shown in a taped interview pouring accolades on the honoree, ultimately concluding that Wonder is a “f*cking genius!”

Conversely, Stevie has shown his respect for Paul by covering Beatles tunes, most notably their late-1965 single, “We Can Work It Out,” on which Paul sang lead and the Beatles took to #1 in 1966.  Stevie’s version went to #13 five and a half years later.  And that song is where I’d like to begin illustrating just how mystically and musically connected the two really are.

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45 RPM singles for “We Can Work It Out” by both the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, and Paul McCartney’s first solo hit, “Another Day”

What’s noteworthy about “We Can Work It Out” is that Stevie’s version charted – literally – at the same time as Paul’s first solo single after the Beatles’ breakup.  McCartney’s solo debut (and first top ten single) “Another Day” entered the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1971 a week before Stevie’s “We Can Work It Out.”

Both songs proceeded to scale up and down the chart concurrently before they exited during the same week that May.  Ever since that nearly perfectly parallel chart run, “We Can Work It Out” has been like the tie that binds the two artists (perhaps even more so than “Ebony And Ivory”).

Case in point, Stevie has performed his version of the classic at various Paul McCartney and Beatle tributes over the past 25 years.  When Paul was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, it was Stevie who sang “We Can Work It Out” at the ceremony.  (Notably, the song had earned Stevie his second-ever Grammy nomination for Best R&B Male Vocal of ’71 on his way to becoming the most Grammy-winning male solo artist in history).

And when McCartney was recognized in 2010 by the Library of Congress with its “Gershwin Prize” for lifetime achievement in songwriting, it was Stevie who performed “We Can Work It Out” in his honor.  And which artist had won the “Gershwin Prize” the year before?  It was none other than Stevie Wonder.  See where I’m going with this?

Those are interesting connections surrounding that Beatles song of optimism, which was written by Paul McCartney and fellow Beatle, John Lennon, during a time when the two were reportedly quarreling about a number of matters, including whether “We Can Work It Out” should even be the Beatles’ next single.  The fact that Stevie’s 1971 version charted at precisely the same time as Paul’s first non-Beatles single, served as a freakish reminder that the Beatles obviously could NOT work it out as their breakup had proved the year before.

But the story of “We Can Work It Out” is only the tip of the iceberg and the beginning of where the parallel lines can be drawn between Stevie’s and Paul’s legendary careers.

What I’ve chronicled below is a set of facts that I believe cements the interconnection between Wonder and McCartney like perhaps no other two artists who weren’t intentionally trying to be inextricably linked.

To continue, I’ll note what I’ll call their 20/20 (pardon the pun) connection.  Stevie Wonder first hit Number One on the pop and R&B charts in August 1963 with “Fingertips – Pt. 2,” a song that made him the youngest solo artist ever to hit #1 on either chart.  “Fingertips” would be the first of Stevie’s 20 Number One hits on the Billboard R&B Singles charts.  No other act has had more Number Ones on that chart (although Aretha Franklin is tied).

As a member of the Beatles, Paul McCartney hit #1 a few months later in January 1964 with “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” the first of…get this…20 Number One singles on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles charts for the group.  No other act has had more Number Ones on that chart (and no one is tied)…hence the 20/20 connect between him and Stevie.

In a strange – and admittedly speculative – bit of a twist regarding Billboard Magazine’s history, it is, ironically, Stevie Wonder who could be partially blamed for ENDING the magazine’s R&B singles chart after “Fingertips” hit, while Paul McCartney and the Beatles could be partially credited with Billboard’s reinstatement of it.

The music industry trade publication had discontinued the R&B Singles chart in November 1963 after “Fingertips” and other black hits had crossed over to pop because Billboard felt it no longer necessary to differentiate between pop and R&B with the success Motown was having, and with some of the corresponding success white artists were having on the R&B charts.

It wasn’t until the Beatles’ pop success and the British Invasion of 1964 made it apparent that the R&B and pop audiences’ tastes were indeed different that Billboard decided to reinstate the chart in January 1965.  Admittedly it’s a lot to lay on these two, but I’ll call it yet another Stevie and Paul connection.

Now back to more tangible examples.  Stevie Wonder’s official total of 20 R&B Chart Number Ones includes his collaboration with Dionne Warwick as one of the “friends” in Dionne & Friends’ AIDS-charity single, “That’s What Friends Are For.”  However, he also sang as an uncredited artist on the Number One pop and R&B single “We Are The World,” which, by reaching #1, places Stevie ahead of anyone else as having sung on the most Number One R&B singles of all time (21), a record he still holds today.

Paul McCartney, after leaving the Beatles, formed another group, Wings.  Between Wings’ records and his other output, McCartney has had nine additional Number Ones on the pop chart.  This places him ahead of anyone else as having had the most Number One Pop singles of all time (29), a record he still holds today.

So the two artists outright lead all other artists in the category of most Number One hits in their respective categories of R&B and pop.

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Top pic: cover art for “Ebony And Ivory” single by Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder

And – as if they weren’t already living in perfect harmony – one of those pop singles was the already mentioned duet between Paul and Stevie, “Ebony And Ivory.”  That song about racial harmony came at a time when Stevie had been campaigning for the recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. Released in March 1982, while Stevie’s own “That Girl” was still #1 R&B, “Ebony And Ivory” sped to #1 on the pop chart.

As part of yet another numerological coincidence, the song was one of three #1 pop hits directly credited to Stevie Wonder in the ’80s and one of three #1 pop hits for Paul McCartney during the decade as well.

As for “That Girl,” it became Stevie Wonder’s longest-running Number One single on the R&B list, spending nine weeks at the top of the chart in 1982.  And what was Paul’s longest-running Number One single on the pop chart?  “Hey Jude,” which also spent nine weeks at Number One for the Beatles in 1968.  That’s nine weeks for Stevie’s longest and nine for Paul’s.

And speaking of the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday, for which Stevie Wonder’s campaigning was crucial, did you know that on November 2, 1983, President Reagan approved the creation of the holiday during the same week that Paul McCartney’s last No. 1 pop single, “Say, Say, Say” (with Michael Jackson) moved into the top ten?  And did you know that the very first official celebration of the King Holiday occured on January 20, 1986, during the same week that McCartney entered the top ten with his last such hit, “Spies Like Us”?  Both coincidences?  Or was it that spiritual connection between Paul and Stevie at work again?

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Promo special edition single of “Spies Like Us,” Paul McCartney’s last solo top ten single.
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Cover art for Stevie Wonder’s last top-ten pop hit, “Go Home.”

And, if those facts aren’t compelling enough, perhaps the most uncanny chart parallelism for these two legends is the piece of trivia that mostly inspired this article.  

In late-1985, after both Paul and Stevie had experienced great commercial success with various top-ten and Number One hits during the first part of the decade (and for the previous two decades), they simultaneously released what would become their last solo top ten pop singles ever: Paul’s “Spies Like Us” and Stevie’s “Go Home” (both pictured above).  

During the Billboard chart week of November 23, 1985, both songs debuted in the bottom half of the Hot 100.  A few weeks later in December, both tunes simultaneously moved into the top 40 in back-to-back positions at Nos. 31 and 32, respectively.  In early-February 1986, both singles peaked in the top ten (“Spies” at No. 7 and “Go Home” at No. 10).  On March 1, both songs fell out of the Top 40, and on March 22, after 17 concurrent weeks on the chart, both singles fell off the Hot 100 list altogether.  Stevie Wonder has never reached the pop top ten since, and Paul McCartney never again as a solo artist.  

It was almost as if their greatest commercial periods were destined to end at the exact same moment in time when those last two top ten singles entered, then moved up, down and off the chart in perfect harmony.  Even more incredibly, it meant that both Paul’s first and last solo top ten singles, “Another Day” in 1971 and “Spies Like Us” in 1986, literally coincided with parallel chart runs of Stevie Wonder hits.

Of course, both artists have remained relevant to varying degrees since that chart simultaneity in March 1986.  Each has released several albums since then and some of those releases have charted decently.   Paul and the surviving Beatles (at the time) collectively released new material in the late-1990s, which also sold well and charted pretty high.

More recently, Stevie has parlayed his groundbreaking 1976 album, “Songs In The Key Of Life” into a highly successful tour in 2014-15, during which he performs all of the album’s songs in order from start to finish.  I had the fortune of seeing the concert live last November and, needless to say, I was mesmerized by his timeless performance.

Perhaps most telling of their resurgence and their endless connection as artists is this last bit of connectivity between the two: last week as Stevie was being recognized (in part, by Paul) for his musical achievements in the all-star Grammy salute, Paul was enjoying his second Number One single on the Billboard R&B chart (yes, I meant R&B) as part of the Rihanna/ Kanye West collaboration “FourFiveSeconds.”  Granted, McCartney is credited mainly for his guitar playing and not his vocals, and the song benefits from a new chart methodology that Billboard uses (see my first article by clicking here for an explanation).  But it nonetheless demonstrates the respect that today’s artists have for the legendary ex-Beatle that he would even be asked to collaborate.

And it also constitutes the last bit of twisted trivia connectivity between these two legends of music involving the number two: the list of Stevie’s 21 R&B Number One hits (20 plus “We Are The World”) does not include two of his songs that were Number One on the pop chart: “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” (#3 R&B in 1973) and “Ebony And Ivory” (#8 R&B in 1982).

And the list of Paul’s 29 Pop Number Ones does not include two of his records that were Number One on the R&B list: “The Girl Is Mine” (#2 pop with Michael Jackson in 1983) and “FourFiveSeconds” (#4 pop, so far, in 2015).

Two and two. A fitting number to end this article about the connections between two of the greatest artists of all time.

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DJRob

As a bonus, here’s a complete list of Stevie’s Number One R&B singles, according to Billboard (including recordings as part of a group):

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1.  “Fingertips – Part 2” – 1963

  1.  “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” – 1965
  2.  “Blowin’ In The Wind” – 1966
  3.  “I Was Made To Love Her” – 1967
  4.  “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” – 1968
  5.  “Signed Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours)” – 1970
  6.  “Superstition” – 1972
  7.  “Higher Ground” – 1973
  8.  “Living For The City” – 1973
  9.  “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” – 1974
  10.  “Boogie On Reggae Woman” – 1974
  11.  “I Wish” – 1977
  12.  “Sir Duke” – 1977
  13.  “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” – 1980
  14.  “That Girl” – 1982
  15.  “I Just Called To Say I Love You” – 1984
  16.  “We Are The World” (USA For Africa) – 1985
  17.  “Part-Time Lover” – 1985
  18.  “That’s What Friends Are For” (Dionne & Friends) – 1986
  19.  “Skeletons” – 1987
  20.  “You Will Know” – 1988

Stevie also had six Number Two singles on the R&B Chart: “You Met Your Match,” “For Once In My Life,” “Heaven Help Us All,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,” “Do I Do,” and “Go Home”

 

And now Paul’s Number One pop hits (including with Beatles, Wings, and duets):

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1.  “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (Beatles) – 1964

  1.  “She Loves You” (Beatles) – 1964
  2.  “Can’t Buy Me Love” (Beatles) – 1964
  3.  “Love Me Do” (Beatles) – 1964
  4.  “A Hard Day’s Night” (Beatles) – 1964
  5.  “I Feel Fine” (Beatles) – 1964
  6.  “Eight Days A Week” (Beatles) – 1965
  7.  “Ticket To Ride” (Beatles) – 1965
  8.  “Help” (Beatles) – 1965
  9.  “Yesterday” (Beatles) – 1965
  10.  “We Can Work It Out” (Beatles) – 1966
  11.  “Paperback Writer” (Beatles) – 1966
  12.  “Penny Lane” (Beatles) – 1967
  13.  “All You Need Is Love” (Beatles) – 1967
  14.  “Hello, Goodbye” (Beatles) – 1967
  15.  “Hey Jude” (Beatles) – 1968
  16.  “Get Back” (Beatles) – 1969
  17.  “Come Together”/“Something” (Beatles) – 1969
  18.  “Let It Be” (Beatles) – 1970
  19.  “The Long And Winding Road” (Beatles) – 1970
  20.  “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” (Paul & Linda McCartney) – 1971
  21.  “My Love” (Paul McCartney & Wings) – 1973
  22.  “Band On The Run” (Paul McCartney & Wings) – 1974
  23.  “Listen To What The Man Said” (Paul McCartney & Wings) – 1975
  24.  “Silly Love Songs” (Wings) – 1976
  25.  “With A Little Luck” (Wings) – 1978
  26.  “Coming Up” (Paul McCartney & Wings) – 1980
  27.  “Ebony & Ivory” (with Stevie Wonder) – 1982
  28.  “Say, Say, Say” (with Michael Jackson) – 1983
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