This became famous as the theme song for the HBO TV series The Sopranos, but it was around long before the show. The song first appeared on the group's 1997 debut album Exile on Coldharbour Lane, but remained an obscurity until David Chase, who created The Sopranos, decided to use it as the theme song when the series debuted in 1999. Chase originally wanted to use a different song for each episode of the show, but HBO insisted on one song for the sake of branding and consistency. Chase says the first time he heard "Woke Up This Morning," he knew it was the one (he bought the CD after hearing a different song by the group on the radio). A3 received $40,000 for the use of the song; it was an offer they couldn't refuse.
With the refrain "Woke up this morning, got myself a gun," the song does sound very gangster, but it's actually about a case in which a wife finally shot her abusive husband after 20 years. The song is about female empowerment, not the mob.
The woman in question is Sara Thornton, who killed her husband in 1989. The case made headlines in England, where Alabama 3 founder Rob Spragg heard about it and got the idea for the song. He wrote the song with his bandmates Jake Black, Simon Edwards and Piers Marsh.
Alabama 3 are neither a trio nor from Alabama. Formed by Rob Spragg and Jake Black, they are from South London, but have an affinity for American country music, which they would combine with house music. Like Chumbawamba, they were a collective with rotating members, often performing songs with political leanings.
Spragg and Black started out playing raves around England under the name Larry Love and the Reverend D Wayne Love, speaking in American accents. Their first album in 1997 was adored by some music critics, but left no impression on the charts, as their fusion of Americana with Eurodance proved a little too niche. That niche turned out to be perfect for The Sopranos, however, as it provided an appropriate song that was unheard to all but a tiny sliver of the show's viewers.
When the show became a huge hit, Alabama 3 brought their act to America, where they played a series of shows.
As detailed in the liner notes for the album, this song samples "Tell Me" by Howlin' Wolf, "Standing at the Burying Ground" by Mississippi Fred McDowell, and "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters. Howlin' Wolf, under his real name Chester Burnett, is a credited writer on the song along with four members of Alabama 3.
In the US, the band used the name A3 for legal reasons because the country band Alabama threatened a lawsuit (even "Bama 3" and "Alabaman 3" were denied). The name Alabama 3 derives from a 1930s case involving two black men who were lynched after being accused of raping a white woman. The men were called the "Alabama 2" in the media.
At the 1999 Emmy awards, the house orchestra played a version of this every time a Sopranos actor or writer won an award. It was played many times that night.
There is a degree of irony in this song that made it apropos for The Sopranos, which is about a Mafia family and their emotional struggles. As Jake Black explained in The Times of London: "It's totally ironic that we, who disapprove of anything villains do, should be picked for the theme song of a show that shows the human side of villains. You see the guy knocking f--k out of someone... but he's got heart. All the while the guy's controlling thousands of people's lives, squeezing them. So that is ironic."
By the time this song became the theme for The Sopranos, Alabama 3 had been dropped from their American record label, Geffen. Sony Music, which issued the soundtrack to the show, re-released the song as a single in 2000, but it went nowhere, as the song got very little airplay (a battered-woman song by British guys with American accents somehow couldn't find a format) and the band was too obscure to generate sales.
In the UK, the band is better known for their song "Ain't Goin' To Goa," which hit #40 there in 1998.
The original US release on this song was a 12" single containing five different mixes of the song:
Chosen One Mix
Urban Takeover Mix
Drillaz In The Church Mix
Y'all Gotta Come
Dam Metal Jam Mix
The Chosen One Mix was edited for use on The Sopranos.
Unlike most TV shows, The Sopranos didn't use theme music composed for the show. Instead, they used real songs. This costs a lot, but is much more realistic and can make a big difference in a scene. The producers spent a lot of time picking out music for the show.
This song was used in The Simpsons
episode "Papa's Got A Brand New Badge."
Campo - Sydney, Australia
The harmonica player in Alabama 3 is Nick Reynolds, whose band name is Harpo Strangelove. His father, Bruce Reynolds, masterminded the Great Train Robbery in 1963
. Speaking with Songfacts in 2020, he explained how "Woke Up This Morning" changed things up for the band. "As our keyboard player the Spirit Of Love once wrote, that song bought someone a fancy house with a swimming pool - but it sure wasn't any of us!," said Reynolds. "Obviously we're proud to have been associated with such a well-loved series and to a certain degree we're still milking it and have just released a 5-album box set
Nick also shared his thoughts on the overseas popularity of The Sopranos. "In the UK it was huge, as for the rest of the world I dont know but presume it was. A Malaysian princess once told me it was a cult series in Malaysia but it was banned and only available on VHS under the counter! Real counter culture!"