Long before streaming services offered the option of skipping past the opening credits, millions of HBO viewers looked forward to the song that introduced The Sopranos. The darkly humorous mob drama, which ran from 1999 to 2007, presented the domestic and business challenges of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a New Jersey capo who suffered anxiety attacks from the stress of being a criminal family man. After the famously static-ridden HBO logo appeared, the show’s credits rolled, with Tony driving through Jersey and pulling into his driveway while “Woke Up This Morning” played.
While British-based band Alabama 3 didn’t write "Woke Up This Morning" expressly for the series, it did take inspiration from the kind of violence depicted on the show: The song was based on a real-life murder.
As Alabama 3 songwriter Rob Spragg recounted to Ladbible.com in 2019, “Woke Up This Morning” was inspired by the case of Sara Thornton, a domestic abuse survivor in Warwickshire, England. In 1989, Thornton murdered her husband, Malcolm, by stabbing him while he rested on the sofa after he had made repeated threats toward both her and their young daughter. She was convicted of murder in 1990.
Women’s advocacy groups argued that Thornton was battered and desperate to protect herself. When she was eventually granted a retrial, her case hinged largely upon the idea that she had dissociative episodes.
Ultimately, a jury did not find her guilty of murder but did charge her with manslaughter. In 1996, she was freed.
“She stabbed him to death,” Spragg said. “After years of abuse, she just had enough. So she woke up one morning and decided to go and get herself a knife. That would have been the lyric, but it didn't quite sound right, so we changed it to gun. The rest is history.”
Alabama 3 released the track in 1997. David Chase, who was preparing The Sopranos for its 1999 debut at the time, heard the song on the radio. Alabama 3 wound up agreeing to a deal where HBO paid them just $500 to use the song. With royalties factored in, the group has earned nearly $400,000 as of 2019. The song also turned up in Chase’s 2021 prequel film The Many Saints of Newark.
According to Spragg, Thornton herself is familiar with the song. “She really likes [it],” he said. “I’m so pleased.”