"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" is a blues standard written by Jimmy Cox in 1923. Its lyric, told from the point of view of a one-time millionaire during the Prohibition era, reflects on the fleeting nature of material wealth and the friendships that come and go with it. As a vaudeville-style blues, it was popularized by Bessie Smith, the preeminent female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. Since her 1929 recording, it has been interpreted by numerous musicians in a variety of styles.
When "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" was composed in 1923 by Jimmy Cox, the "Roaring Twenties" were coming into full swing. After the post-World War I recession, a new era of prosperity was experienced in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, in the face of all the optimism, Cox wrote a cautionary tale about the fickle nature of fortune and its attendant relationships:
Once I lived the life of a millionaire, spendin' my money I didn't care
I carried my friends out for a good time, buying bootleg liquor, champagne and wine
When I begin to fall so low, I didn't have a friend and no place to go
So if I ever get my hand on a dollar again, I'm gonna hold on to it 'til them eagles grin
Nobody knows you, when you down and out
In my pocket not one penny, and my friends I haven't any ...
The song is a moderate-tempo blues with ragtime-influences, which follows an eight-bar progression:
Although "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" was published in 1923, the first known recording did not appear until 1927. Piedmont blues musician Bobby Leecan, who recorded with various ensembles, such as the South Street Trio, Dixie Jazzers Washboard Band, and Fats Waller's Six Hot Babies, recorded an early rendition of the song as Blind Bobby Baker, with his vocal and fingerpicking-style guitar. His version, recorded in New York around June 1927, was titled "Nobody Needs You When You're Down and Out" and used some different lyrics with emphasis on the hard times (Perfect 133, Pathé Actuelle 7533).
On January 15, 1929, influential boogie-woogie pianist Pinetop Smith recorded "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" in Chicago (Vocalion 1256). In it the lyrics are spoken rather than sung to Smith's piano accompaniment. The song is one of eleven-known recordings by Smith, who died two months after he recorded it.
Bessie Smith recorded the song on May 15, 1929 in New York. Unlike the earlier versions, Bessie Smith recorded the song with instrumental accompaniment, including a small trumpet section. When Smith's record was released on September 13, 1929 (a Friday), the lyrics turned out to be oddly prophetic. The New York stock market had reached an all-time high less than two weeks earlier, only to go into its biggest decline two weeks later in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which signaled the beginning of the ten-year Great Depression.
Bessie Smith's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" became one of her biggest hits, but was released before "race records" were tracked by record industry publications, such as Billboard magazine. Today, it "more than any other, is the song that most people associate with Bessie Smith".
This was Duane Allman's first song with us. I believe that it was a song that he and Eric both had in common ... This song was recorded live, vocals and all, with no overdubs. It was the first take, but of course it was all worked out before we went into it".
Allman had recorded "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" earlier with his brother Gregg and used similar guitar lines for the Derek and the Dominos recording. Whitlock also noted that Clapton played through a Fender Champ guitar amplifier (a five-watt practice amp), while Allman used a Fender Twin.
Shortly after the studio recording, the song became part of the Dominos live set. Although it did not appear on their 1973 In Concert album, a recording from the Fillmore East on October 24, 1970 was later included on the expanded Live at the Fillmore album released in 1994. For this version, Clapton played all the guitar parts and Whitlock performed on piano. In 1992, Clapton recorded another rendition for the MTV Unplugged series. In keeping with the show's theme, the song was performed in an acoustic style. Clapton recounted: "I also enjoyed going back and playing the old stuff like 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out', which was how it all started back in Kingston so long ago."