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At the simplest level, the song is about the ebony (black) and ivory (white) keys on a piano, but also deals with integration and racial harmony on a deeper, human level. The title was inspired by McCartney hearing Spike Milligan say "black notes, white notes, and you need to play the two to make harmony, folks!". The figure of speech is much older. It was popularised by James Aggrey in the 1920s, inspiring the title of the pan-African journal The Keys, but was in use from at least the 1840s.
Written by McCartney alone, the song was performed live in the studio by both McCartney and Wonder, though due to conflicting work schedules, both recorded their parts for the song's music video separately (as explained by McCartney in his commentary for The McCartney Years 3-DVD boxed set).
A video for the solo version was also made, which showed McCartney playing piano with a bright spotlight, and African-American males in prison, including one of them being uplifted by the song, dancing and listening to it in prison as well as in the studio. This version was directed by Barry Myers on 11 February 1982. That same day, McCartney filmed a promotional interview for the Tug of War album.
The b-side of the single, the song "Rainclouds", is written by Paul McCartney and Denny Laine, though on early pressings of the single the song was credited only to McCartney.
"Ebony and Ivory" spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was the fourth-biggest hit of 1982. For McCartney, the song's run atop the chart was the longest of any of his post-Beatles works, and second longest career-wise (behind "Hey Jude" with The Beatles); for Wonder, it was his longest-running chart-topper. It marked the first time that any single released by any member of the Beatles hit the Billboard R&B chart. It was McCartney's record 28th song to hit number one on the Billboard 100.
In 2008, the song was ranked at #59 on Billboard's Greatest Songs of all time. In 2013, it was ranked #69 on the Billboard list of the Hot 100 songs of all-time.
^'Master and mistress, and neighbors, and negroes assemble, and black and white are seen strung along the great table, like the keys of a piano, and, like the aforesaid instrument, the black keys make fully as much noise as the white; all mingle for a while in the utmost harmony and good feeling....' Rev C F Sturgis, 'Duties of Christian Masters to their Slaves' (1849) quoted in Breedon, James O (editor), Advice among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), page 262.
^Eight Arms to Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium; Chip Madinger and Mark Easter; Page 266