Song 237: Judy Clay & William Bell, “Private Number” (1968)


Allmusic says that this song “made the summer and fall of 1968 more pleasant.” That’s a hard thing to claim objectively, but I’d believe it. That year was basically a living hell, and this song, so light, airy and pretty, is anything but.

Admittedly, when “Private Number” starts, the world seems dark and mysterious. Its first chord is A-minor, the relative minor of the key of C, which means the song starts with the most basic of minor chords, a universally known bummer. The song then slinks down to G-major and then F-major, and it finally settles on the root chord of C-major as William Bell sings “since I’ve been gone.” The sun comes out in that moment, and the darkness doesn’t return.

That minor-major turnaround befits a song about hope following heartbreak. We’re dropped immediately into the memory of the breakup, and Bell’s plea for forgiveness is accompanied by a series of major chords with the occasional hint of a minor. There’s undeniable optimism in the lyrics (which include immediate forgiveness by a serene Judy Bell), a tone mirrored by a sweet arrangement featuring horns and cinematic strings. It’s all very lovely.

If this blog has taught me one thing, it’s that I’m terrible at guessing the years of certain songs, especially when it comes to soul and R&B. I would never have guessed that this song, which reminds me of the Temptations and early Marvin Gaye, came out as late as 1968. But it’s heartening to know that something so beautiful came out in the middle of such madness.


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