The life and death of DJ Derek, an unlikely reggae legend

Derek Serpell-Morris was a cardigan-wearing ex-accountant who became ‘the blackest white man in Bristol’ and a hero to Don Letts and Massive Attack. After going missing in July 2015, his body was finally discovered earlier this month. This is the story of his mysterious disappearance and extraordinary life

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DJ Derek with Don Letts at the Silver Bullet, London. Photograph: Courtesy of The Silver Bullet

For Jenny Griffiths, eight months in limbo ended with a phone call shortly before midday on 11 March. A body had been found in the woods near the Cribbs Causeway shopping centre, north of Bristol. Personal effects strongly suggested that it was Jenny’s missing great-uncle Derek Serpell-Morris, better known as DJ Derek.

For 50 years, Derek had been a fixture of the Bristol music scene, DJing reggae, ska, rocksteady, dancehall and R&B. Over the past two decades, he had become a national cult figure, playing to packed venues across England and appearing in the video for Dizzee Rascal’s Dirtee Disco. Beyond the novelty value of a white former accountant playing Jamaican music, his love of the music and culture was sincere and profound.

“He was a reggae encyclopedia,” says his friend Don Letts, the film-maker and 6 Music DJ. “He taught me about the importance of culture in bringing people together. He was an English treasure.”

The 73-year-old’s disappearance last July was national news, boosted on social media by Bristolian musicians such as Roni Size and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. The media covered every development in a search that turned Jenny, who was Derek’s informal personal assistant for a decade, into both family spokeswoman and amateur detective. With that phone call, however, the search was over. The most famous missing person in Britain was no longer missing.

“I prepared myself for the worst, but I stayed strong and didn’t let anything get to me,” Jenny says five days later. “I didn’t cry and I didn’t grieve. So when I had the phone call that confirms your worst nightmare, it was a shock. Maybe I’m still in shock.” Her voice is soft and weary. “I don’t think it’s hit me yet. I haven’t had that crying session yet where you just break down.”

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Derek DJing in 2007. Photograph: Alamy

Jenny and her grandmother, Derek’s twin sister Shirley, are sipping tea in Jenny’s living room. The 29-year-old learning support assistant is between jobs, so since last July her sole focus, apart from raising her two children, has been looking for Derek.

“We had concern for Jennifer because she’s been so active,” Shirley says. “This activity can keep you going to a certain extent, but we did try to warn her that after a while, if he hadn’t been found, there had to be a moment when she stops.”

“Which I wouldn’t have done,” Jenny says firmly. “I’d have carried on and carried on.”

While we’re talking, Avon and Somerset police announce that DNA tests have confirmed the body is Derek. Jenny’s phone vibrates constantly with condolences and interview requests.

Derek’s disappearance was unusual. Up to 300,000 people are reported missing in England every year, but the vast majority are found within 48 hours and rarely is a missing person well known. Derek was particularly loved in Bristol. In recent years, he received the Lord Mayor’s medal and a certificate from the people of Bristol declaring him an OBE, or “Outstanding Bristolian Entertainer”. “I remember getting on a bus with Derek once and everyone started clapping,” says Jenny. “That’s how well known he was.”

Before Derek’s disappearance, Letts and Daddy G from Massive Attack were making a documentary that entwined his biography with the story of race relations in Bristol. Daddy G calls him “an ambassador for cultural exchange”. Letts goes further: “He’s a testament to the power of music to change individuals and, in so doing, change the idea of what it means to be British.”

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Jennie and Shirley Griffiths. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

You can read the rest of Derek’s story at the Guardian

 

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