DJ Derek Sweet Memory Sounds: A Tribute To The UK’s Original White Reggae Star
DJ Derek is Derek Serpell-Morris. He’s 72. Last night the Bristolian played his last ever show at London’s Notting Hill Arts Club. Derek is the Cadbury accountant who became a much-loved dance hall DJ.
“I was not even a DJ when I was at Cadbury. I was originally a washboard player in a local skiffle group and then a drummer in The Ramrods, a Bristol rock’n’roll group,”. he says. “But even back then I knew I loved black music more than I loved rock’n’roll.”
He fell in love with the new sounds:
“I loved it from when I was a school kid. I was lucky to have been born when I was, as I was a teenager in the ‘50s when rock and roll hit. Even then I preferred to listen to black artists, though. Not only were their voices better but so was their musicianship. On the whole, the white artists sounded puerile. I loved Ray Charles, Smiley Lewis and the big band music by people like Lionel Hampton. Instead of just guitars and drums, these guys had horn sections and saxophones. It was proper r’n’b – not like the stuff now, which is more like soul. They didn’t play it on the BBC so I used to listen to the American Forces Network.”
“The pubs all had a ‘no dogs, no Irish, no blacks’ policy. And black people didn’t want to listen to white music, anyway. Then a gentleman I know opened a pub [The Criterion] and welcomed black people, and I could listen to music we’d never heard before. These people saw a gap in the market because black people weren’t welcome anywhere else. But I became well known among the black community.”
“I had loads of friends in Bristol – especially in the black community. So I handed in my notice. Going on the dole in the 1970s was not a great thing to do and it practically gave me a nervous breakdown. But I was invited to play records for beer money. I’d play in the Star and Garter in St Paul’s, and Jamaican guys would come in and tell me I was playing such ‘sweet memory sounds’, so that’s what I called myself: DJ Derek Sweet Memory Sounds.”
The Arts Club trailed his final show thus:
We are honoured that DJ Derek has chosen the Notting Hill Arts Club where he has been resident DJ at Sweet Memory Sounds since 2001, to play his last ever DJ gig! And it’s on New Year’s Eve But we’ll be so very sorry to see him retire! If you have not been fortunate enough to experience the monthly Sweet Memory Sounds, or to witness DJ Derek playing in his beloved St Paul’s in Bristol, or at Glastonbury, then you won’t know that it’s DJ Derek’s passion for bluesy soul, ska and reggae music, combined with his warmth and wit and waistcoats, that are part of the reason he’s so special.
Derek can talk the talk. He learned to talk the new language by sitting in a barber’s shop. As he says:
“If you’re discussing money and everybody is talking so fast that you can’t understand them, you always feel you’re being stitched up. That made me consciously learn to speak, what some people call Jamaican Patois, but it’s actually a separate language as far as I’m concerned. I got to the extent where I could ring up a black record producer in London and when they met me they’d be amazed I was a white man.”
Derek has been profiled in a documentary: