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Woke Up This Morning: In conversation with Alabama 3 and Dominic Chianese

Rolling Stone UK meets The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior in a Brixton studio with Alabama 3, the band who wrote the TV classic’s ‘Woke Up This Morning’ theme, to discuss their new collaboration

By Will Richards

Alabama 3's Nick Reynolds and Dominic Chianese (Picture: Press)

As I enter the Brixton HQ of acid-house stalwarts Alabama 3, 92-year-old Dominic Chianese aka the sly and calculating Uncle Junior in The Sopranos — is in the band’s recording booth with his walking stick, laying down a foreboding spoken-word vocal. “Though I walk through the valley of evil, I will never drink tequila again,” he says in his Bronx drawl as the band’s founding members, Rob Spragg and Nick Reynolds, roar with laughter and approval next door at the mixing desk.

The song, ‘If I’d Never Seen the Sunshine’, appears on the band’s new album Cold War Classics Vol. 2. The genesis of the unlikely collaboration took place in 2019 at the first-ever Sopranos Con in New Jersey. As well as being an actor, Chianese is also a tenor singer and performed at the convention. There he met Alabama 3, who wrote The Sopranos’ unmistakable theme song, ‘Woke Up This Morning’, and struck up a friendship.

Chianese then promised to visit the band in their London studio, coming good on his word four years later. “We knew Dominic as an actor, and we did our performance of ‘Woke Up This Morning’, and then he came on stage and blew the fucking roof off with this Neopolitan opera singing!” Spragg explains of how they met at Sopranos Con. 

Alabama 3’s Nick Reynolds and Dominic Chianese (Picture: Press)

“I sang ‘Parla Piu Piano’, which is a song Nino Rota wrote for The Godfather,” Chianese remembers of that day. “It’s a very personal song. It’s not about romance — to me it’s really about father and son, mother and daughter, two brothers. It’s about this familial bond. This bond is precious, and when I sing it, I think about my father and what he taught me.”

“It was beautiful you could hear a pin drop when he sang it!” Spragg smiles.

“It reminds all the young Italian guys of their grandfathers!” adds Chianese.

“We had a chat about linking up together, and then Dominic rang us up,” says Spragg.

In our conversation, Chianese, Spragg and Reynolds discuss their new collaboration, how they bonded over The Sopranos, and the healing power of music.

What was it like meeting at Sopranos Con?

Reynolds:Straight away, Dominic was super friendly. Obviously we’d all seen The Sopranos, and these guys [from the cast] were the real stars at this event. It just so happened that this tune by us was used for the series. What really blew us away, was that in their mind, we were the big shots.

Spragg: All the cast rushed the stage and grabbed the mic when we were singing ‘Woke Up This Morning’, but when [Dominic] was singing, no fucking chance! It was silence!

And what did you bond over when you met?

Spragg: We are big supporters of a great organisation called Swan Song, run by a friend of ours Ben Buddy Slack, where people write a song about someone on their deathbed, and they all sing together as a family. Music transcends all emotions and is a thing that brings people together. The only reason that Dominic is here in our studio is because of music.

Chianese: I worked with the elderly back in the 80s, and there was a woman who couldn’t have been more than 50. She had severe Alzheimer’s, and I gave her the words to ‘Stardust’. She sang every single word like she was Ella Fitzgerald. I hang out with a guy where I live now every Tuesday, and I gave him a harmonica. I’m telling you, he’s playing the harmonica now, and he wasn’t even able to talk. It’s really helping people, and doing more of this would save a lot of money, especially when we’re fighting the pharmaceutical companies.

How early did the power of music become apparent to you?

Chianese: When I was 15 years old, I left New York for a while and went to a nursing home in a suburb. I did it for 30 years whenever I wasn’t working. The MO was to put all of the wheelchairs around the room and create a circle. We’d mix the Alzheimer’s patients with the high-functioning patients, and it really worked. I’ll never forget this little old Irish lady called Annie. She’d be there, and I’d be singing for an hour and a half, and she’d be [moving her fingers] as if she was playing piano, with perfect rhythm. One day, she said to me, “Can you sing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’?” I said, “Sure, Annie!” So I hit the D chord, and she started the verse and played the whole thing with her fingers in the air. One day, I said to her, “You must have been a wonderful pianist,” and she said, “Oh, no, I was a typist!”

What do you remember about ‘Woke Up This Morning’ being chosen as the theme song for The Sopranos?

Spragg: Everyone thinks we wrote the song about gangsters, but it’s not even about that! It’s about a woman called Sarah Thornton, who was raped and beaten up by her copper husband for years and years, and one day she woke up and shot him in the head with his own gun. I didn’t write it about the mafia, but with all the issues about his mother that it talks about, [Sopranos writer and producer] David Chase said to me, “That’s fucking Tony Soprano and his mother!”

Chianese: That’s where the whole show comes from, Tony and his mother.

Spragg: And the lyric, “Your mama always said you’d be the chosen one”, that’s Tony!

Chianese: I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, and David was a musician himself. He always wanted to be in a rock band. I knew that he’d choose something beautiful. That opening scene is just wonderful — even my wife, who is very, very English, loves it!

Reynolds: David’s original idea was to have a different opening track for each episode, and when he went in to do the pitch, he said that [‘Woke Up This Morning’] is going to be the song for episode one. [HBO] actually liked this one, so they stuck with that tune at the start, and had a different song at the end of each episode, which I think worked really well.

Spragg: Have you seen The Many Saints Of Newark, Dom?

Alabama 3’s Nick Reynolds, Rob Spragg and Dominic Chianese (Picture: Press)

Chianese: I thought it was very interesting, a good prequel. It gives a little history of how Tony Soprano grew up.

Spragg: At the end of the film, it cuts to black, and our song comes on. I was in the cinema in Brixton watching it, and it was rammed. I’d had a row with my girlfriend so I was a bit pissed off, but the film ended and ‘Woke Up This Morning’ started and everyone went mad! I just burst into tears. How the fuck have a band from Brixton pretending to be Americans ended up on the best gangster film going?!

You did a pretty good job of pretending to be Americans…

Reynolds: It was at the time of Britpop, and everyone was wearing Union Jacks and being proud to be British. We fucking hated that, and wanted to be the antithesis of it.

Spragg: God bless Blur and Oasis, but I can’t imagine them opening The Sopranos! David Chase thought he’d found an American, and then realised that we were a Welshman and a Scotsman from south London! That irony made the intro even better though…

Alabama 3’s Rob Spragg and Dominic Chianese have a bite to eat after their recording session (Picture: Press)

It seems like the show has picked up a new audience in recent years…

Spragg: Covid was amazing for it — The Sopranos was the most-watched box set in lockdown, and it had a real resurgence. So when Uncle Junior gets in touch with us after Covid and we’re all still alive, we had to work together. He came up to us, not the other way around. He was treating us like the celebrities, but he’s the real don!

And what’s the song you’ve been working on today about?

Spragg: It’s got a Berlin, Bowie, Roxy Music vibe. It’s about some fella on the wrong side of the wall in Germany with a hangover, feeling alienated and dispossessed. We’ve got a couple of gangster tracks on the new album, but I don’t want Dominic and us to be associated with the Mafia all the time — we’ve got to do a beautiful love song! Dominic sounds exactly like I wanted him to sound like, a man who will never drink tequila again.

Chianese: I did it once with two Cuban guys and they had to lay me down in a cab! Never again!

Spragg: We should make something else together, Dom.

Chianese: If you’ve got a guitar and a harmonica, let’s do a country song!

Reynolds: Can you play in E?

Alabama 2’s new album Cold War Classics Vol 2 is due for release on October 27 2023 via Submarine Cat Records.