B.B. King was born as Riley B. King on 16 September, 1925 near the town of Itta Bena, Mississippi. A self-taught guitarist, King wanted to become a radio musician. While working at a Memphis radio station as a singer and disc jockey, he gained the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy", later shortened to "Blues Boy" and finally to B.B. In 1949, King began recording songs which led to his own band; the B.B. King Review, which was followed by tours across the United States. Following his first blues charts number one, "3 O'Clock Blues" (1952), B.B. King became one of the most important names in R&B music in the 1950s. King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Official Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2014. From the 1980s to his death in 2015, King maintained a highly visible and active career, still performing 300 nights a year.
American Blues musicians were a big influence on U2, and U2 had a great admiration for B.B. King. In 1987, King played a show in Dublin and found out U2 would be in the audience. This made him nervous, as U2 had just released The Joshua Tree and were wildly popular, especially in their native Ireland. After the show King was honored to meet the band and humbled to find out they were big fans. He asked Bono to think of him sometime when he was writing a song. Although King assumed that Bono would forget, Bono went on to write a song dedicated to B.B. King.
The song Bono would write for B.B. King was named When Love Comes To Town. The lyrics were very heavy, King was amazed Bono could write such mature lyrics at such a young age. B.B. recollects: "I asked Bono if he would write a song for me and he said yes. About a year later, the group was touring in the US and asked if I would open the show, and I said gladly. Bono said, ' I have this song for you.' He brought it out and I thought it was a very deep song for him, being such a young man. But I liked it very much. The lyrics were very heavy. Blues is not prejudiced. You can be any colour to play the blues. Most people say it's a simple music, I won't argue that. I say everybody can play it, but that doesn't mean everybody's gonna like it. I think U2 did a very good job. I thought it was great and I still do". When Love Comes To Town was recorded in the Sun Studios in Memphis and was released as a single in April 1989, with b-sides being Dancing Barefoot and God Part II. As the band tried to show King the song's changes, the blues legend replied "Gentlemen, I don't do chords". Bono recalls that incident fondly: "It was a lesson, in that he is as Keith Richards describes: a specialist". The single went on to be a huge career boost for B.B. King, as he wasn’t well known in the world of rock or pop. His association with U2 brought him a huge number of new fans, and changed the dynamic of his audience. The single ended up winning the MTV Video Music Award for best video from a film in 1989. The video provided B.B. King with his first exposure to the MTV audience. It also was B.B. King’s biggest hit in the UK.
It was in Fort Worth, Texas where U2 and B.B. King would perform live together for the first time. B.B. King was asked to open for U2 and both Bono and Edge watched his set from beneath their customized stage. The afternoon was spent on rehearsing When Love Comes To Town, these rehearsals as well as parts of the show were filmed and made it onto Rattle and Hum. As the second encore commenced B.B. King and his band would join U2 on stage to play what they rehearsed that afternoon: When Love Comes To Town. It was the first live performance of the song and the lyrics were slightly different from the studio version that would later appear on Rattle and Hum:
”When the sun came up I was sleeping on the street, I felt the world was dancing and I was dirt beneath their feet.
When I picked myself up, I saw the devil look down, but they could not play guitar the day love came to town..”
Near the beginning of their 1989 tour with B.B. King, U2 and B.B. King hold a press conference. Bono says, “Working with B.B. is a mixed blessing because he’s the only guy I know that when he moves back from the microphone his voice gets louder. I feel like a little girl singing with him.” King recalled: “After hearing the song When Love Comes To Town when my manager mentioned it to me, he didn’t mention I was to sing it with U2. When Bono mentioned we’d do it together - really, it was one of the great things that’s happened to me in my career.” The day after the press conference, five days before the Lovetown tour, U2 organized a surprise birthday party for King. They invited King on a boat for what he thought was a fishing trip, but as soon as they left shore, they released balloons and sang Happy Birthday. That night, they had a fireworks display in his honor.
U2’s collaboration with B.B. King ended up in a song, a single, and to King being part of the entire Lovetown tour. For King this was an ability to reach to a whole new generation of audience thanks to U2. The tour started in Sydney with a main set with only U2, before B.B. and his band joined U2 for the second encore. The three-piece horn section and the keyboard player of B.B.’s band added their rich sounds to Angel of Harlem and When Love Comes To Town, for which B.B. himself joined Bono in a sparkling duet. In a few occasions, the band played a snippet of B.B.'s "In The Midnight Hour" during this song. Love Rescue Me had a B.B. verse as well, taking over Bob Dylan’s part from the studio version before U2 ends their show with ‘40’. B.B. ended up performing in all Lovetown shows but one, the show in Amsterdam which was ended early due to Bono’s vocal problems. B.B. really became the major of Lovetown, known for his shout-outs to the audience during shows:
“The cure is love - is there love in the house tonight? Is there enough love to make us not hurt each other? Is there enough love to make us wanna help each other?”
At the end of Lovetown, during the final Lovetown show on 10 January 1990 in Rotterdam, Bono gave his famous “hero” speech in which he included B.B: “B.B. King’s band are heroes of mine”. It was a great long ride and the audiences all over the world loved B.B., or the “heavyweight champion of the blues”, as Bono could refer to him sometime. The farewell is emotional. U2, B.B., his band and the backing singers form a chain and bow to the audience for the last time. Everybody hugs, kisses, thanks each other for the good times and wave at the audience.
"We discovered a common bond between us and some of these older artists like B.B. King. When we met him there was a whole world of understanding and nothing needed to be said. That has been the payoff of working ten years to get into this position. We no longer have to prove ourselves. It's in the music and people can hear it." - Adam Clayton
On 26 October, 2008 Bono and Edge appear on stage during BB King's set at the annual Thelonious Monk Gala, hosted by the Monk Institute of Jazz. This is the first performance of When Love Comes To Town by any members of U2 since 28 August 1993, although it has been a setlist regular at BB's concerts. The first half of the song is played more in U2's rock style, then halfway through it transforms into BB's recent live arrangement. Afterwards, numerous other performers at the Gala join Bono, Edge, and BB for a cover of Let The Good Times Roll.
B.B. King passed away on 14 May, age 89, right around the time when U2 played their opening show for its Innocence and Experience tour. This led U2 to play the first live version of When Love Comes To Town on the first show after his death in Vancouver on 15 May 2015. It was the first live performance of the full band since Dublin, 1993 for ZooTV, 23 years earlier. “This is a very special occasion, for anyone who loves the blues. Cause this is the day that the world gets to say goodbye to the great B.B. King. That is a very special occasion to me”, as Bono introduces the song on stage, before closing it with saying that “the thrill will never be gone”, referring to one of B.B.’s greatest hits: The Thrill Is Gone.