This iconic hard-luck song was a hit when Bessie Smith recorded it in 1929, and with its timeless message and memorable melody, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” has been a favorite for singers in almost every genre including jazz, blues, folk and rock. Bessie Smith was the most popular female jazz and blues singer of the 1920’s, and the highest paid black entertainer of the day. Known as “The Empress of the Blues”, she often worked with the top tier players in the business, including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and James P. Johnson. Although her career declined somewhat in the 1930’s, it’s likely that she would have continued to be a major influence but for her death in a car wreck in 1937.
This is the only film that exists of Bessie Smith, from the 1929 movie St. Louis Blues. Though the sound quality is primitive, her voice is still commanding:
Josh White recorded “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” in 1945. A country bluesman in the Piedmont style, he was responsible for popularizing folk-blues to white audiences, and was one of the first black singer-guitarists on Broadway. He was a fixture at the Greenwich Village club Café Society, the first integrated nightclub in the United States, and broke many racial barriers that paved the way for other popular black performers like Harry Belafonte and Ray Charles.
Here is a wonderful film clip of Josh White, Sr. performing “Nobody Knows You”:
Otis Redding is considered one of the greatest soul singers ever, responsible in large part for the success of the great Memphis soul label, Stax Records. Often working with Steve Cropper and Booker T. and the MGs, Redding recorded the classics “Respect”, “These Arms of Mine” and “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay”. He was one of the first soul performers to break through to a white audience, and his death at age 26 cut short a career that was blossoming. He recorded “Nobody Knows You” in 1966. Here’s a live clip of one of his best known songs “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”:
Eric Clapton made one of his finest albums, Layla and Other Love Songs with Derek and The Dominos in 1970, a group that included Duane Allman on slide guitar. Perhaps spurred by Allman’s genius, Clapton delivered the most passionate performances of his career, including “Nobody Knows You”. The group was short lived—Duane Allman died a year later, and Clapton went into semi-retirement, coping with heroin addiction. Clapton later revived the song as an acoustic guitar piece.
Here are the complete versions of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” tracked through time:
Bessie Smith “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” 1929
Josh White “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” 1945
Otis Redding “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” 1966
Derek & The Dominos “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” 1970