The theme song that introduced the hit TV series The Sopranos at the end of the 1990s and throughout much of the 2000s sounded quintessentially American – film noir meets the blues, with a hint of Tom Waits gruffness in those hard-boiled lyrics – “Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.” It was performed by a group called the Alabama 3, although they did not come from Alabama. They were co-founded, and the song co-written, by Jake Black. And Black came from Possil in Glasgow.
Woke Up This Morning was certainly their best-known recording. Their fans included Leonard Cohen, Stephen King and Will Self and they were one of Irvine Welsh’s favourite bands. “I can’t understand why the Alabama 3 aren’t one of the biggest bands on the planet,” he lamented in an article in The Guardian in 2008.
The Trainspotting author got to know Black even before their first album came out. “A friend from Brixton came to stay in my Amsterdam apartment and brought me a tape of the sessions that would become the bulk of the Alabama 3’s incendiary debut album,” he said.
“Its fusion of techno with country and western was astonishingly bold, combining the most radical and reactionary genres of popular music. I started to check out the band’s gigs and found that Jake Black (aka D Wayne Love), one of the band’s founding members, and I had many mutual friends from our raving days in Glasgow. I became one of the band’s aficionados, known collectively as the ‘bammies’. We’re the punters who help make A3 gigs the best party in town.”
Black formed the group with Rob Spragg after they met at a party in London in the mid-1990s and discovered a shared passion for acid house and Hank Williams. Spragg was not from Alabama either. He was from Wales. And the band was not originally called Alabama 3, but rather The Free Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine (UK), reflecting, well, all sorts of cultural of influences.
It almost goes without saying that they were never a trio, but a fairly fluid musical collective, with around 14 in the group when they toured.
Black was and was not the quintessential rock star. The long hair came and went. The dark glasses remained in place. “If they wear shades indoors, it’s because they’re covering up strung-out eyes and brawlers’ bruises,” Welsh suggested.
Nick Reynolds, aka Harpo Strangelove, harmonica player, sculptor and son of one of the Great Train Robbers, said “Other singers would jump up and down like Mick Jagger, trying to get the audience’s attention. Jake just stood there with one hand in his pocket, and it had the same effect as the guy doing the look-at-me routine.”
The music was eclectic to say the least, including a spaced-out cover of Hotel California and a wonderful homage to one of country’s most iconic figures called Hello… I’m Johnny Cash, working the titles of many of the great man’s songs into the lyrics.
The official Alabama 3 website describes them as “a pop band, a punk rock, blues and country, techno, situationist, crypto-Marxist-Leninist electro band”. Black described their live act as “pantomime”. The Guardian reckoned they were “the best live band in the country”, though the NME labelled them “a monumental waste of time”.
That eclectic mix of influences was perhaps already present in Black’s childhood. His father Bill was a Clyde shipyard worker, a staunch communist and passionate trade unionist. His mother, Madge, had danced professionally in music hall in Scotland.
Black was actually born in Basildon in Essex, in 1960. He grew up largely in Possil, Glasgow. Country music has long been popular in the West of Scotland, though Black’s father was keener on the political folk music of Ewan MacColl and Black’s early years included cultural visits to Eastern Europe.
Then came the punk rock phenomenon of the late 1970s. “Punk rock liberated people like me and those I knocked around with in Glasgow,” he said. “For the first time, we were able to come out of the scheme, dress up and hit the city centre, talk about Rimbaud and Baudelaire, mix with Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill.”
Having gravitated to London and set up Alabama 3, Black secured a deal with One Little Indian Records, the indy label whose roster also included Bjork and Chumbawamba. Their debut album, Exile on Coldharbour Lane, came out in 1997, its title referencing the Rolling Stones and a street in Brixton notorious for drug dealers.
The album included Woke Up This Morning, co-written by Black and Spragg. A remixed version set the tone for The Sopranos, a drama series about the family life of a New Jersey mobster. It was adopted as a sort of theme song by the fraternity, although the song was actually inspired by the cause celebre case of Sara Thornton, a woman who killed her husband after years of abuse and was initially found guilty of murder.
Over the next two decades Exile on Coldharbour Lane was followed by a string of albums, bootlegs and singles. A few singles made the lower reaches of the charts, but even Woke Up This Morning got no higher than No 78.
However, the group retained a loyal following, including musicians, critics and film and TV producers, with some of their other songs also turning up in shows and movies.
Black had Addison’s disease, also known as primary adrenal insufficiency. He fell seriously ill during an appearance at the Highest Point Festival in Lancashire last month and died a few days later. He did not have children and is survived by several siblings.