A thick West Indian accent has helped make him a groundbreaking figure on the British reggae scene for more than 50 years. But TIM HUGHES learns that the reality is different

FOR more than five decades he has been a towering presence on the UK reggae scene.

A groundbreaking DJ he has pioneered Jamaican music since the 1970s, introducing the sounds of ska, soul, dancehall and rocksteady to eager crowds and influencing generations of artists – among them Massive Attack. So it comes as a surprise to find this king of the DJ booth, with a laid back Jamaican drawl, is a 71 year-old middle class white man from Bristol. Welcome to the world of DJ Derek.

“I have always loved this kind of music and the people,” the turntablist tells me while relaxing at home in St Paul’s – the centre of the city’s Afro-Caribbean community and the place he forged his reputation as among the country’s earliest exponents of reggae.

“People often still say it’s the best night’s music they have heard in their life,” he says proudly.

But after playing thousands of shows – including scores in Oxford – Derek is calling it a day and hanging up his decks.

Tomorrow he plays his last ever set in the city, in support of Jamaican singer Susan Cadogan at the O2 Academy.

Born Derek Serpell-Morris, Derek was fascinated with black music from an early age – listening to early rhythm and blues on his radio. “I loved it from when I was a school kid,” he recalls. “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.”

He took his first steps into music as a washboard player in a skiffle band. On being introduced to the drums, he realised he was a natural despite never having a single lesson. “I practiced at home with an old cheese box and some stretched parachute fabric,” he smiles.

His band became a fixture around Bristol, but Derek’s heart lay elsewhere – in the Jamaican pop records which were starting to come into the country. The problem was, there was nowhere in Bristol to play or dance to them.

“The pubs all had a ‘no dogs, no Irish, no blacks’ policy,” he sighs. “And black people didn’t want to listen to white music, anyway. Then a gentleman I know opened a pub and welcomed black people, and I could listen to music we’d never heard before.”

The pub was called The Criterion and it is still there now. It was followed by a nightspot – The Bamboo Club, opened by Bristolian sailor Tony Bullimore, who later became famous when he was rescued after his boat capsized in the Southern Ocean during the 1996 Vendee Globe round the world race.

“These people saw a gap in the market because black people weren’t welcome anywhere else,” says Derek. “But I became well known among the black community.”

At the same time, he was working as an accountant for Cadbury’s. Then came what he calls his “five years of hell” when he lost both of his parents and saw his first marriage break-up. His second marriage also turned out to be a short-lived affair.

The turning point came when he was promoted and asked to move to Birmingham. He declined, quit, and turned to reggae.

“I had loads of friends in Bristol – especially in the black community,” he says. “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.”

It was there he met Hugh ‘Andy’ Anderson, a Jamaican reggae-lover who would go on to open the Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House in Oxford’s Cowley Road. Their friendship has lasted to this day, with Derek a familiar sight and sound in the bar.

Derek’s reputation soared. “I proved so popular people would ask me to play parties,” he says. “I started to get more and more recognition. Some people would ask why a white guy was DJing, but as soon as they heard the playlist they were over the moon. I surprised them with my tunes and was soon playing six nights a week, though it was a meagre living and I was frantically trying to keep the bailiffs from the door. But things got better as the quality of bookings improved.”

He picked up his trademark patois from a Jamaican barber. “That was essential to fit in and overcome the feeling of being a white DJ playing black music,” he says. “I picked up the syntax, humour and swear words. It comes naturally. I think in Jamaican and it sounds right. I’ve certainly never been accused of being patronising.”

News of this white reggae DJ spread far, and in the early ‘80s the BBC filmed him at work for a BBC2 documentary called Picture This: DJ Derek Sweet Memory Sounds.

Since then he has weathered riots, boom and bust, has played Glastonbury, WOMAD, the Big Chill and Bestival, and appeared alongside such legends as Alton Ellis, the Skatalites, Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, The Wailers Band and songwriter and Massive Attack collaborator Horace Andy.

He says: “My records have changed over the years from the original ska, reggae, calypso and soca, but the thing that stays the same is the rhythm. Jamaican musicians never let go of rhythm.”

And while it may be a sad day for reggae fans, Derek is convinced the time is right to retire. He plays his final gig nationally at the Notting Hill Arts Club on New Year’s Eve.

“I’m happy with my decision,” he says softly. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and it is getting too much. The travelling and setting up are hard work and I don’t want to just go through the motions. It will also allow me to indulge in my other hobbies – travel, real ale and Wetherspoon pubs; I’ve been to every one.”

But, he says he will carry on listening to the music he has made a living from all these years.

“It’s been a joy to have done it,” he says. “A Jamaican guy once told me ‘now we’ve got you, we’ll never leave you’ – and he was right!”

DJ Derek plays the O2 Academy Oxford tomorrow (Friday). The night runs from 8pm-3am. Tickets are £12 from ticketweb.co.uk