Posted by: Dr. Grover B. Proctor, Jr. | 1 October 2017

When B.B. and Bono Came to Town

I just finished reading Blues All Around Me — the autobiography of B.B. King. And I am even more deeply filled with admiration for the humility and grace of the man, and for the towering genius of his music.
B.B. King
Purposely written (by co-author David Ritz) in the style of the great Blues Man’s speech, the book was completed and published when King was 71 years old. As a memoir, it is above all honest, thorough, frank (shockingly so, at times), and both gently self-effacing and keenly self-aware. There were many passages that were just so wonderful (for this true fan of B.B. King) that I had to search out my wife and read them out loud to her.

Now I’m seeking you out, to let you read one of my favorite passages from the book.

Writing about B.B. King is becoming one of my favorite things to do. I have two previous essays about “The King of the Blues,” my personal obituary for him from 2015 and his (and others’) take on the question of whether Elvis was a racist. (Spoiler alert: everyone who knew him, including King and the many giants of Black music, all agree that Elvis “didn’t have a racist bone in his body.”)

In this new essay, I’m sharing the history of one particularly huge hit song by B.B. King, which has always spoken directly and forcefully to me.

If you know and love B.B King’s music, then I’d be willing to bet that one of your favorite songs by him is “When Love Comes to Town.” It was written especially for him, words by Bono and music by his rock group U2. It’s way up there among my favorites, and among the songs most likely to stir my emotions — with good reason. It comes across as a perfect fusion of the blues of B.B. King and the unique rock style of U2, as it was always intended to be.

U2's Bono and B.B. King

U2’s Bono and B.B. King

In the excerpt (below) from Blues All Around Me, B.B. King tells how the song came to be written, how the special relationship between him and Bono started and grew, and how this song was fundamental in introducing a whole new generation to the American Blues and the Blues Master himself. You’ll see how the song’s poetry was what first drew King to the song (“Real heavy lyrics. You’re mighty young to write such heavy lyrics!” he told a slightly embarrassed Bono). Couple this with a powerful, driving musical foundation, plus the lyrical cries of King’s guitar “Lucille,” and there was no question it would be a winner. (Below the excerpt, I’ve put a link to the song’s music video, which is seasoned with concert footage and other visuals from Rattle and Hum, the documentary film featuring U2.)

B.B. King never liked being called “The King of the Blues,” but everyone always did anyway. At the time this excerpt begins, he has at least become the leading Elder Statesman of the Blues. His long-time manager, Sid Seidenberg, was in the middle of a multi-year project to get King’s artistry in front of larger and more varied audiences. Sid understood King’s genius perhaps at a more fundamental level than anyone, and fortunately, his imagination for possibilities was equally large. As a result, he came to B.B. King with a suggestion that would change everything. . .

from Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King

B.B. King autobiography

I was sixty-three when my career hit its hottest stride. . . .

Sid was also looking for greater exposure. That’s why he hooked me up with U2. I’d heard their Joshua Tree album and knew they were among the biggest rock groups in the world. I could relate to rock. I heard its blues roots and felt its connection to my music. I could see its popularity had grown like wildfire since Elvis started shaking his pelvis in the fifties. Opening for the Stones and Marshall Tucker had been important for my career. But it took Sid—and not me—to think of a way to introduce myself to still another young generation.
“It was a joy, just a joy, to share a stage with B.B. King. There was this great sense of camaraderie in his band. A rich, brassy sound they have behind them with the horn section.

And then there’s his grace. You know,
he’s a Lesson in Grace.”


“We’re going to Ireland,” said Sid, “and U2 is coming to the show. So why don’t you ask Bono, the guy who sings lead, to write a song for you?” Sounded like a good idea, but I wasn’t sure Bono would be interested. I also hate to impose myself on anyone else. When it comes to business, though, I make myself do certain things, even if they might go against my nature.
After my Dublin Concert, Bono and his boys showed up in the dressing room and we had a nice relaxed chat. They acted more like old friends than superstars. Before Bono left, I mentioned how I’d like him to write a song for me. All he said was “Okay, I will.” A year passed, maybe more, and I’d forgotten the whole thing when Sid said Bono had been looking for me. U2 was playing Fort Worth, Texas, and wanted my band to open the show. Sure thing.
“I love the song. Real heavy lyrics. You’re mighty young to write such heavy lyrics!”
—B.B. King to Bono,
who looked humbled and in awe
When I got there, Bono was all smiles. Said he’s written the song, but it was a duet for the two of us. I was flattered but frightened. Wasn’t the kind of material I was used to. But he was cool and patient and showed me how it went. More I heard it, more I was convinced our styles would blend. He called it “When Love Comes to Town.” The story surprised me; the lyrics weren’t what I’d expected. Didn’t think someone so young would write something so deep. In a rock tune, he’d written about the Crucifixion of Jesus. The song was solid and the rhythm was right, and that night, after my show and after his, Bono called me back out in front of forty thousand screaming U2 fans and we sang “When Love Comes to Town” as the crowd stood and cheered. It was a great moment.
I was there
     when they crucified my Lord.
I held the scabbard
     when the soldier drew his sword.
I threw the dice
     when they pierced His side.
But I’ve seen love conquer
     the great divide.

—”When Love Comes to Town”

It was also great going out with U2. We taped a video that got heavy airplay and won an MTV Video Award. “When Love Comes to Town” was the hottest single off the album. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, we basically used the live version with some adjustments made in the studio. After the song came out on their album Rattle and Hum and hit big, U2 carried us around the world for over three months. We hit Europe and Japan and came back home, playing huge football stadiums and giant arenas to sold-out crowds. Bono treated us with absolute respect. He never made us feel like an opening act. I was given a hotel suite as big as his in every city I played. And in every concert, I felt a new energy coming from audiences who brought with them a fresh appreciation of the blues.
I’ll never know how many new fans I made on that tour. But I believe my music was heard by still another new generation of young people who seemed to feel the same thing I’d felt when I first heard the blues sung by my Uncle Jack hollering in the cotton fields outside Indianola—raw emotion.

“I gave it my absolute everything I had in that HOWL, at the start of the song.
And then B.B. King opened up his mouth, and I felt like a girl.”
—Bono, on the opening 10 seconds of the video below


B.B. King and U2 in Sun Studio

Rare Photo of B.B. King and U2 in the legendary Sun Studios, Memphis,
recording “When Love Comes to Town”




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