On this day in 1925, Jimmy Cox passed away after giving us the immortal Roaring Twenties hit “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” written for Bessie Smith (one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s) who originally made it famous back in the day, before being widely re-popularized in 1992 by Eric Clapton on MTV Unplugged.
Interestingly, Clapton had previously recored the song with his band, Derek and the Dominos, for their first album (Layla). It was Duane Allman’s first song with the group and was recored live, vocals and all, with no overdubs on the first take!
The song’s lyrics, 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. Tragically, it wasn’t recorded and released by Bessie Smith until 1929, just two weeks before the Wall Street Crash that ushered in the depression, and 4 years after Jimmy Cox died at the age of 42. So Cox never even knew of his enduring legacy!
I was fortunate to first be exposed to this song at a long closed Greenwich Village supper club called The Cookery off of Washington Square Park when I was at NYU. I was lucky enough to hear it sung by Alberta Hunter, one of Bessie Smith’s contemporaries. It must have made quite an impression, because if I close my eyes I can still picture the room and almost hear her performance!
A little bit more about Alberta Hunter. Her story has an astounding medical connection. After beginning her singing career in a brothel, she rose to writing songs, singing in clubs around the world, performing in Paris and London, appearing onstage in musicals in New York and London, and recording with Louis Armstrong! But get this – after her mother died in 1957, she lost her interest in performing, reduced her age with an “invented” high school diploma and eventually became a nurse, working in New York for 20 years. Believing she was 70, the hospital forced her to retire – but she was actually 82 years old! Then, a two-week appearance at The Cookery turned into a six-year engagement, which is where I saw her.
This one’s dedicated to my friend Will on his birthday today! He is a GREAT guitarist and vocalist!! Perhaps he’ll make a guest appearance on this blog someday?
In the meantime, please enjoy one of my very favorite songs to play,