April 22, 2016
“He wasn’t so much a great collector as he was a great sharer of music”. Close friend Count Skylarkin’ pays tribute to the life of one of the UK’s most loved selectors, DJ Derek.
DJ Derek has been laid to rest in St Pauls, Bristol. Accountant turned reggae DJ, Derek built a reputation as one of the most individual, affable DJs on the circuit, playing festivals and clubs across the country fuelled by nothing more than a pair of minidisc players and a few bottles of real ale. To his audience he was a cult legend, to the Jamaican reggae community he was a kindred spirit: “The man that chats the people’s talk and plays the people’s music,” as Toots once said of him.
Missing since last July, Derek was found dead in March, news which prompted a rush of tributes and well-wishers. Speaking – and DJing – at his funeral today was close friend and disciple Aidan Larkin aka Count Skylarkin’ – the DJ and promoter who brought Derek to Oxford every month for ten years.
We’re truly humbled that he’s chosen to share the touching eulogy he delivered at the service today, published in full below.
Words: Aidan Larkin aka Count Skylarkin’
I always was warming up for DJ Derek. He was a very special person in my life, and I’m honoured to be here today and very grateful to his family – to Gerald, Shirley and Jennifer in particular; to Ian and the Reverend Liz – for the invitation to speak, to be involved, to choose some of the songs you’ve been hearing – to nice up the dance for him one last time. They were some of Derek’s favourites. Nellie Lutcher’s ‘My Mother’s Eyes’ was the first tune to really leave a mark on the young Derek Serpell-Morris. He recalled hearing it for the first time as a kid with his ear to US Forces Radio on the wireless late at night in about 1947 and being struck by the quality of the singing. It was the first time he’d heard a black voice, and it’s fair to say he got a taste for it.
My story with Derek began in June 2004. It was late on the Wednesday night at Glastonbury and the legendary Pilton microclimate was living up to its reputation. The wind was howling and as the rain began to fall not even the Dry Scrumpy was enough for myself or my mates to want to brave another hour by the famous old Burrow Hill Cider Bus. We reluctantly opted to head back in the direction of our tents. I’m happy to say that fate had other ideas.
We’re walking past this tent and all I can hear is great old rhythm & blues music. Jazz music. Swing music, like the Lavern Baker singing Bessie Smith song that you’ve just heard. I’m looking over thinking how much I want to go into that tent, but how my mates won’t be interested. Then I look around and I can no longer see my mates. They’ve all made a beeline in the direction of the music. Then we’re all in there dancing. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re only selling the Dry Scrumpy in there as well.
Tune after tune followed. We’re having the night of our lives. Nobody knows who is playing these songs. I’m looking over at where the DJ should be and I’ve no clue either. There’s a skinny auld fella wearing some overalls and a tie, but I think he’s just there to fix something. No wonder with the rain and the 50mph gusts. Or maybe he’s been trying to get some sleep and is here to complain at this impromptu party that’s happening. He couldn’t be the one playing the tunes, could he? He picks up the mic and we think he’s going to tell us all to sod off back to our tents and let him get some peace. But instead he introduces ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ by Nina Simone, and for some reason he’s got this rasping Jamaican accent. At this point I hope you’ll forgive me for attempting to recreate it.
“I first bought this record when it topped the American R&B chart in 1958, back when they used to call it Race Music. It never catch on in Britain till they used it on a perfume ad in 1987. It’s the most popular record I’ve ever played.”
Before we’ve had the time to process the fact that we’ve been dancing to the selections of some little old librarian whose accent appears to have gotten lost, he switches things up. “Kill dem wit de know!” He’s playing bashment! And then I twig. “I’ve heard of this bloke” says I to my mate Eamon, who’s struggling to balance two cans of Red Stripe while being indecently accosted into joining a conga line. I wander over to the decks.
“Are you DJ Derek?”
He looks himself up and down.
“Well I was when I came in”
I ask if he’ll come and play at my clubnight in Oxford. He says he’ll do it for £150, a bed for the night and “plentiful quantities of Real Ale”. I didn’t know it but my life had just changed forever.
I’d been running a weekly Thursday night session in the basement of a tiny pub on Oxford’s Cowley Road. It had grown into a bit of a cult success I suppose, and the owner of The Zodiac a few doors down had been asking if I could do something for him. I booked Derek to play that September on my birthday and much to my amazement, we sold out a 500-capacity club on a Thursday night. At some point I bumped into the aforementioned club owner, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and decorated in flower garlands and women’s lipstick: “This is the best night I’ve ever had in my own club! We’ve got to do it every week!” We settled on a monthly residency and (though we switched the venue in 2009) it lasted for 10 years.
Last night at Oxford Zodiac before the ‘Academy’ refurb April 2007. Photo by James Allsworth (Source: Facebook)
There was something very special about those nights. First of all, it required some serious commitment to attend. Thursday is a school night, after all. We had every kind of person coming down. Black, white, Asian, students, hippies. At one point the local hospital had a staffing crisis on the last Friday of every month as half of its nurses and junior doctors had requested it off so that they could go dancing and get whammed at Skylarkin’ with DJ Derek the night before. Lets’ get together and feel alright. It didn’t matter who you were, people mixed in a way they would never have done otherwise. Friendships were made. Babies were born.
One night I met Derek in the pub and the barmaid wouldn’t let us pay for our drinks because she’d met the man who would become her husband at one of our shows. Another time The Zodiac blooded a fresh young teenage lighting engineer at our night. At the subsequent lock-in the kid, who I think it’s fair to say was a bit wet behind the ears, asked Derek if the lighting in the club had been to his liking. Not wanting to disappoint the lad, Derek thought for a moment before replying, “Yes! There was a one trained on the back of my neck the whole time keeping me lovely and warm. Respect man!” The boy was chuffed! That kid is now a man and lives in Nashville, Tennessee and works on massive stadium tours. He’s done the lights for the Foo Fighters and Dolly Parton, but guess which anecdote he still trots out to this day.
In booking Derek I’d lucked upon an audience that I hadn’t known was there. Suddenly Oxford had a buoyant reggae scene, and I was feeling sufficiently buoyed to book some legendary acts from the Caribbean to come and play. Cheered on by these incredible audiences, these guys gave us some of the best shows of their lives. The late, great Alton Ellis said that his Oxford gig ranked alongside winning the National Song Contest in Jamaica in the early ’60s. Max Romeo was sufficiently moved to perform ‘Wet Dream’ for the first time in more than 30 years. The shows were as memorable for the artists involved as they were for the many hundreds of people who never believed they were gonna see The Skatalites or Horace Andy or Dawn Penn in their town. Although he tried not to take the credit, there’s no way these shows would have ever happened had it not been for Derek, his ability to convey his love of music and companionship – that good feeling he inspired in people.
You see, you weren’t just going out to see some old bloke playing records (or minidiscs for that matter), good as the tunes were. You went, and you kept coming back, because you loved him, and because you knew the place was going to be ram-packed full of other people who loved him too. And you really couldn’t wish to spend an evening in better company.
And it wasn’t just Oxford, or Bristol for that matter. Derek could command huge crowds and inspire that wonderful feeling in just about every city in the land. The landlord of The Star & Garter right here in St Pauls put his finger on it in that famous 1994 documentary.
“I’ll let you into a secret. If you’ve got a pub and you can’t get no trade, you get DJ Derek and advertise it. Then you’ve got trade.”
The secret was out. Only it wasn’t just pubs – it was concert halls, carnivals. Festivals all over the country and all over the world.
Derek and I became instant friends. In 2005 he encouraged me to come along to The Big Chill Festival, where he was something of an institution. And although he wasn’t scheduled to perform there till the Saturday, he kindly met me at the gate on the Friday night to show me around. We skipped past the security, he showed me where to stash my tent so we could get down to the far more important business of drinking, dancing and chatting up women. Only two of those things went well, for me at any rate. Derek had women hanging off him, wanting to get a photo or just share a few words. The man is a like a god around here, I’m thinking. I was his eager disciple. At about 1 in the morning, Derek suggests we get some food and says he knows the best place to go. Lead on, brother. He marches me past the Thali Café, the Goan Fish Curry, the organic falafel, even the delicious-smelling Jamaican curry goat and we get to a place selling the blandest potato wedges I’ve ever had the misfortune to try and direct into my mouth whilst in a heightened state, or any other state for that matter. It was at this point I had to remind myself that this was a man who generally ate at Wetherspoons.
The following night, and Derek had the dance tent rocking. There must have been 5000 people in there, and they were eating out of the palm of his hand. He spots me in the crowd and invites me to join him onstage. “I warn all you ladies – he’s a young Irish buck with a Jamaican rebel soul”. A gaggle of girls follow me up the steps to grab the customary selfie with the man himself. After they’ve gone Derek is devastated to discover that one of them has stolen his pint. He stops the record. At this point I’ll moderate my great friend’s language, given the sanctified surroundings we now find ourselves in.
“I just want to say…
To those three young (ahem) women
Who TEEFED ME ALE
That I hope you enjoy it
And I hope you enjoy what I left in it!”
You’ve never seen 5,000 people go to the bar so fast. Everybody wanted to be the person who bought Derek a pint, and before you know it we’re being inundated with beer, wine, shots, packets of Rothmans and what I’m fairly sure was a box of Viagra. I’m not too sure what happened after that, apart from I know I woke up around 2 o’clock the following afternoon, sunburnt on the side of a nearby hill. I’ve no idea where Derek ended up, but I can tell you that he pocketed the Viagra.
Derek and I started getting a lot of bookings to play together – I reckon something close to 200 in all. We toured with The Wailers, warmed up for Toots & The Maytals. Toots called Derek “The man that chats the people’s talk and plays the people’s music.” Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Bob Marley’s right-hand-man, was a bit more succinct as our paths crossed. “Wha’ppen, Derek”. Derek had been sharing his love of their music for decades, and it turned out that they all loved him too.
After a few years I could near enough predict what tune he was going to play next, what great one-liner he was going to trot out. I still never got tired of hearing them though. Derek’s collection of vinyl (and later minidiscs) was legendary, but he wasn’t so much a great collector of music as he was a great sharer of music. A catalyst for joy and companionship. Music as a force for good. Bringing people together. For The Good Times.
To say that Derek made the world a better place sounds trite but it’s true. You left your cynicism at the door when you went to see Derek play and you got back pure love instead.
He also made the music business a better place, a kinder place. A promoter dealing with Derek had to remember his manners, and if Derek didn’t know you you’d need to send a letter to his flat in Montpelier to confirm any booking. His hospitality rider was exceptionally modest but if you booked Derek you had to look after him. He commanded respect, and he found it everywhere he went. He was the antidote to an industry that strives to take itself too seriously – simple, straightforward, giving the people what they want to hear. An old-fashioned gentleman, with a streak of mischief. The lovely Reverend Liz, who runs this beautiful old church, took the time to ask me how Derek’s passing had left me feeling when we first met last week. You can tell that she’s really good at being a vicar, because the words poured out of me in a way that they hadn’t before. ‘Rudderless’ is the one that I keep coming back to.
I last spoke to Derek when I rang him a month or so before his disappearance.
“I can’t talk for long, I’ve got to catch a bus to Bath. Has that Wetherspoons Directory that I sent you come in handy on your travels?”
An hour later and he’s long-since missed his bus and he’s having to hang up the phone so that he doesn’t miss the next one and telling me off for having made him late for his afternoon pint.
“We really can bloody chat when we get going.”
“How’s Sonya down at Notting Hill Arts Club?”
I’ve lost perhaps the most important friend that I ever made, and I’ll feel that loss forever. But you’ve got to pick yourself up and carry on. Derek did make the world a brighter place, but it doesn’t have to be a dimmer place without him. Now That We’ve Found Love, What Are We Gonna Do With It? Let’s Give Love A Try.
For years you went around saying to audiences, “You’ve made an old man happy”. Well you made us all so very, very happy, Derek. We’ll miss you, and we’ll never forget you. You inspired us. One love.