Derek Serpell-Morris was a former accountant who left his job in 1977, when he was in his 30s, to indulge a passion for reggae, ska and rocksteady music as a DJ in his home city of Bristol. It was a job which he kept for the rest of his life, declaring his retirement on New Year’s Eve 2013; in the interim he gained cult success, earning admiration from Bristolian artists like Massive Attack and Portishead, playing festivals like Glastonbury, Bestival and the Big Chill, and earning the affectionate title of “Britain’s oldest DJ”.
Part of Derek’s fame emerged from the simple fact that, even when he first came to wider attention in his 50s, the bookish, glasses-and-tanktop-wearing Derek looked much older than the popular conception of a club DJ. Yet his love for the music he played was absolute, as was his dedication to building his record collection, and his sets were credible amongst younger audiences and the original Caribbean immigrant communities in Bristol whose culture he loved so much.
He called his original residency in a Bristol bar where he was a regular DJ Derek’s Sweet Memory Sounds, because those who listened to it found their memories cast back by the classic songs he would play. It was also the title of the BBC’s 1994 Picture This documentary which introduced Derek to the nation, and to cult success with club audiences for the rest of his life.
Serpell-Morris was born in Bishopston, a suburb of Bristol, in 1941. His father was a carpenter who worked infrequently, and the family were poor; Derek once remembered he and his siblings going round the neighbours’ doors begging for old books and shoes to burn in their stove. In his teenage years he learned to play the drums, starting a skiffle band with some friends and playing the rhythm parts himself on an old cheese box. Eventually he acquired a drum kit, although he played it upside down due to being left-handed, and the band switched to rock ’n’ roll as it became more popular.
Derek’s first job was nothing to do with music, although it was his playing which earned it. Appearing on drums in a group performing at the Cadbury’s chocolate factory’s annual Christmas pantomime, he was complemented on his ability by Lady Cadbury herself and offered a job with the company. He became an accountant and eventually a senior manager at the Fry’s factory in Keynsham, near Bristol, but left in 1977. Having just come out of the second of two failed marriages, he chose to get out of office work and take his life in a different direction.
As a young music fan in the 1950s, Derek developed an interest in what was then termed “black music”. The first song he remembered having an effect on him was My Mother’s Eyes, the 1947 ballad by Louisiana jazz singer Nellie Lutcher, and he found more tracks to love on Radio Luxembourg and the American Forces Network.
In years to come his passion extended to favourites like Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin and James Brown, and to the music being brought to Bristol by a new wave of Caribbean – particularly Jamaican – immigrants in the 1950s. He learned more about the rocksteady, ska and reggae styles by immersing himself in the culture they came from; despite tabloid scare stories at the time that it was a dangerous area for white people to visit, he ventured into the St Pauls district to go to black music clubs, making friends as he went.
One of Derek’s favourite haunts was the Star & Garter pub in the Montpelier area, and soon after he left his job with Cadbury’s he was invited to play some records there by the new owner. It was a residency he enjoyed for many years; he was there on the night the St Pauls inner city riot broke out in 1980, walking through the police lines to get to his gig, and it was around the genteel, old-fashioned Star & Garter scene that the Picture This film was set.
“I basically play to the older generation,” he said in that film. “I like having kids around, but they’ve no time to listen to what the big people want.” Yet its broadcast in 1994 brought him to public attention, and from then on younger and younger audiences wanted to hear him play. In 1994, Bristol group Portishead released their debut album Dummy and brought the city to national attention alongside contemporaries like Massive Attack and Tricky. They recognised a kindred spirit, and invited him to play support at their shows, as did reggae artists like Toots and the Maytals.
A lover of real ale and a bus enthusiast since childhood, Derek’s career in his later years combined his three great passions; he believed he had travelled every National Express route in Britain to get to DJ engagements (in later years he used minidisks, as his vinyl became too heavy to carry) and he visited every Wetherspoon’s pub he encountered on the way. His estimate was that at least 250 had been sampled as he played two or three shows a week, even in his 60s.
Derek Serpell-Morris went missing in July 2015, inspiring a national hunt by concerned music lovers. His body was found in undergrowth in the Patchway area of Bristol, the cause of death so far unknown but not suspicious. Amidst renewed interest in his life, a film about him by Don Letts and Massive Attack’s Daddy G named Ring the Alarm is in production. “I do count myself an extremely fortunate person,” said Derek. “I live the life I love and love the life I live, I’m a very happy person. It’s kept me young at heart.”
“He’s done the test of time,” said a friend in the Picture This documentary. “What do you do with a man who’s done the test of time and did it correctly? Who’s gonna take his place?”