Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out - Compilation by Bessie Smith |  Spotify


Badfinger20’s blog can be found at- https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/100229634

I got into Bessie Smith from listening to Janis Joplin and reading about her. Bessie’s voice sends chills up my spine…that is my litmus test. This particular song grabs me because of Smith’s voice and vibe of the recording. She sings it, means it, and she lived it. The sound of the record and her voice is just unbeatable. Yes we have digital now but digital could not give you this sound.

If you are not familiar with her…do yourself a favor and check her out. 

I can imagine Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Clara Bow all listening to this in the 20s and 30s.

This song was written by Jimmy Cox in 1923 just as the roaring twenties were taking off. There are many versions but Bessie Smith recorded hers in 1929 with a small trumpet section. It was released a few months before the stock market crashed and the start of the Great Depression.

Many artists (Peter, Paul and Mary, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Dave Van Ronk, Otis Redding, Popa Chubby, The Allman Brothers Band, Rod Stewart, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Katie Melua, Dutch Tilders, Steve Winwood with The Spencer Davis Group, Emmy Rossum, Leslie Odom Jr.) have covered this song but Bessie’s is my go to version. 

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 15, 1894. She lost her dad while she was an infant and her mom when she was 7-8 years old. She was raised by her tough older sister. To help support her orphaned siblings, Bessie began her career as a Chattanooga street musician, singing in a duo with her brother Andrew to earn money to support their family.

She is credited with recording more than 160 songs between 1923 and 1933. Smith performed on stage throughout the southern United States and recorded with such jazz greats as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins.

Before the Great Depression, Bessie was the highest paid black entertainer in the world, collecting as much as two thousand dollars a week to perform. She was accompanied by great musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, and Benny Goodman.

This song was recorded New York City, May 15, 1929.

Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin and Norah Jones who have all given her credit as their inspiration.

On September 26, 1937, Smith was severely injured in a car accident while traveling from a concert in Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, with her companion Richard Morgan. She was taken to a hospital, where she died.

By the time of her death, Bessie was known around the world appear with the best players of the day at theaters coast to coast. Bessie’s voice and showmanship drove her from poverty to international fame as a singer of blues tunes, many of which she wrote and co-wrote.

She has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, winning posthumous awards for her 1923 single “Downhearted Blues,” 1925 single “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong, and a 1928 single “Empty Bed Blues.” Smith has also been honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

Janis Joplin: “Back in Port Arthur, I’d heard some Lead Belly records, and, well, if the blues syndrome is true, I guess it’s true about me…So I began listening to blues and folk music. I bought Bessie Smith and Odetta records, and one night, I was at this party and I did an imitation of Odetta. I’d never sung before, and I came out with this huge voice.”


  1. Max is digging deep! 3 minutes of awesomeness. Bessie’s vocal is just amazing. Her influence on future singers can be heard in their songs, as well. Bessie reminds me a bit of Big Mama Thornton, especially when she sings with that growl in her voice. Fantastic pick, Max!!

  2. This is wonderful. Great first pick! I can picture my grandparents listening to this when they were growing up in the 1920s and 30s. I agree that this recording beats digital.

  3. A surprise pick from Badfinger20- I was expecting something from Big Star- but I am liking the pick… I have her box set- haven’t listened in a while- going to have to get them out….. I saw the hospital [when I saw it a hotel] where Bessie died in Clarksdale, Miss.

    • I need to get that box set. After seeing Jeff’s pick I wanted to dig back a little… great sounding recordings.
      I need to take a tour of that area.

    • There is a lot to see- which are not tourist attractions- it was a fun couple of days in the Mississippi Delta.

    • yes near Clarksdale.. there is also a nice blues museum there… and outside of Clarksdale also the farm where Muddy Waters grew up on-lived before moving to Chicago… a lot of stuff.

    • One of my best friends growing up is a blues guitarist…I’m calling him today to see if we could make a side trip there.

  4. Along with people like Armstrong, Ellington. Williams, Guthrie etc. Bessie is someone that is till making an impact. Great pick Max. Giving a nod to her and her music. What a great tune. I watched a doc on her and remember the car crash. Man what a sad thing. Cars were crazy back then

    • Thanks CB…I can hear a lot of her influence through the years. I love her raw voice coupled with that recording.
      It’s just a shame how she died…

    • Yeah, when i watched that doc it got me. (I watched an Ella one recently. Same thing). Armstrong recorded with her on some sides. Could you imagine the music on that day.
      Talk about influences. Every time I hear Waits, Beefheart and others Howlin Wolf just naturally comes up. People like Bessie were that influential. Always be in our music.

  5. Definitely expanding the range of the draft Max – great pick! I was struck that she was being paid $2k a week back then – that’s amazing! Not sure what that translates into in today’s dollars but a substantial amount I’m sure

    • Very little if no income tax… yea that is a great sum in those days. Thanks Paul… love that voice and natural feel.

  6. This one is a suprise pick, Max. Nothing like pop that’s for sure. Wonderful biographical information on Bessie. She is one of many I know little about. So much good music not enough time. Excellent choice and write-up. She’s got smooth power in her voice.

  7. As others said, a surprise opener from Max! I was figuring it was a toss-up between something by The Who and Big Star. (My first one coming soon is predictable but I plan to throw a few curveballs in) That’s one powerful voice from a lady I knew nothing about- I could easily imagine Janis Joplin doing justice to it – so thanks for expanding my knowledge a bit!

    • Yea I’ve always liked Bessie Smith and I posted something by her when I first started. When I think of blues…this is what comes to my mind. Yes I can see Janis being influenced by Smith and many more.

  8. I am not surprised. 😉 A guy who loves silents? You were born too late, dude. 😄

    I’ve never heard this but, DAMN what a voice. I agree with Keith about the growl.

    • So do you like it? Just a great blues song and I can see how she influenced Janis. Also…stupid me…when I was editing the post before I sent it to Hans…I somehow erased where Janis Joplin bought her tombstone when she found out she was in an unmarked grave…Janis died that year afterward.
      To be accurate…a nurse went in half and half with Janis.

    • I caught the tombstone thing on your site. How tragic for the both of them.

      It’s a good song. I like her voice. Janis, not so much but…you already knew that.

      I run hot and cold on blues tunes. I’m not a complete fan of the genre but, there are pieces I like. Jazz is even worse. I can only take jazz in small amounts.

    • Thank you Jeff! You helped inspire this one by going with Nat King Cole. Her voice was outstanding and you could hear her life through it.

Comments are closed.