AccountingWEB caught up with DJ Derek at one of Bristol’s finest JD Wetherspoon pubs to discuss a lifetime of beats, clubs and crunching numbers.
Derek was honoured in our 2013 community awards as Born Dull?! Personality of the Year for his contribution and long service to both the worlds of accounting and music.
Following his retirement on New Year’s Eve when he bowed out to a packed Notting Hill Arts Club, life hasn’t exactly slowed down for the bespectacled 72-year old ex-accountant turned DJ.
Despite no longer having to cross the country to get to his next show, it’s not stopped him working on a new Don Letts documentary about his life, sifting through decades of paperwork and making the occasional pilgrimage to a newly-opened Wetherspoon’s in a far flung corner of the country.
Appropriately we met up in Bristol’s flagship JD establishment, The Commercial Rooms, to find out more about his life story, including his thoughts on the relationship between DJing and accounting.
Derek Morris grew up in the St Andrews area of Bristol, which at the time was "on the wrong side of the railway tracks". Infected by waves of rhythm and blues via American forces radio, a young Derek started out playing skiffle on washboard and went on to become an accomplished drummer while holding down day jobs.
But by the early 1960s, against a backdrop of racial tension in Bristol when the Bristol Omnibus company refused to employ black people and the terrible winter of 1962/63, a career with the accounts department at the Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Keynsham beckoned for the young ambitious Bristolian.
“I was never a chartered accountant and never actually achieved full qualification,” Derek explained. “I didn’t work for an accountancy firm but I did work for Cadbury’s for a number of years, working my way up as a cost clerk and ending up as one of the youngest senior managers there.”
By the 1970s, Derek’s cost department was reorganised shortly before Cadbury’s merged with Schweppes.
“They got these consultants in and the guy who was in charge of reorganising the whole cost culture for the Fry’s factory was one of the most brilliant blokes I’ve ever worked with. He was younger than me but he was sharp as a tack.
“The upshot was I was in a team of 30 people who put in the first computer system in Cadbury’s in a room as big as this and you had to wear hats, with reel to reel tapes everywhere and millions of punch cards,” he said.
A decision was made to move Derek to Cadbury’s head office in Bourneville, near Birmingham, and the company was keen to push him up to qualified status and on to senior management.
Despite cramming for the exams, he failed one subject by just one point, “I think I got a D, and that was in financial management. But it wasn’t relevant to the work I was doing as a cost accountant.”
“I didn’t get my head around it at the time, but I understand it now and it’s sunk in after all these years.”
During the reorganisation, the management announced that all the office staff would either have to go out into the factory and work or to move to the company's Bourneville HQ near Birmingham.
“To all intents and purposes I was a single guy, I’d lost both my parents and I thought there’s no way on earth I was going to lose the base of friends I had made in Bristol from the Caribbean community. I don’t like Birmingham – it never developed a proper city centre.
"I was in my mid-thirties then and it was quite a thing to do, especially when we’d just gone through the Winter of Discontent and the country was just about to embark on the Thatcher years,” he said. " To put myself on the dole, there was still a stigma attached to it then, and I’d worked since I left school. But I had no option really. I had to re-balance my life one way or another, and in 1976 I went on the dole.”
Free from the corporate chains, Derek “fiddled around” helping out various people with their books. One of these casual clients was a night club. He was also doing DJing around this time and found he had a talent for filling a dance floor.
“I was playing music that I loved to a predominantly white crowd - playing a lot of reggae, old ska, R&B, alongside disco, which was hugely popular at the time.
“One or two black guys would come in, and there was an African youth worker who lived in St Pauls. Turns out he had an office almost next door to the Star & Garter, which was an established West Indian pub.”
The landlord of the pub left in 1978, just after Derek moved back into St Pauls, and a Jamaican bus driver friend of his took on the licence.
“I was still fiddling around and then the African youth worker, whose name was Manny, said he’d heard me playing this club. Anyway, Hector, the bus driver said why don’t you come and play some music for me, in this mostly Jamaican club.
“The black community didn’t want to hear the kind of music that was being pumped out on Radio 1 or Radio 2, so I went round there and started to play music at lunchtimes. There was also a Jamaican bakery next door, so Friday lunchtime I’d go in there and the guys would come in covered in flour, and I’d play all these old 60s tunes that they’d remember from Jamaica.”
Many would come up to him and say: “You tink we back a yard. Yuh play sum sweet memory sounds” [said in Derek's famous Jamaican accent]. “So I started to call myself DJ Derek Sweet Memory Sounds.”
These were mostly Derek’s generation of West Indians who came over in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and they would come up to him and ask him to play wedding anniversaries and parties.
When another Jamaican opened a night club in the city, he said to Derek: “If you don’t come and play for me, I’ll have to go to Jamaica to get a DJ.” All the other black DJs of that generation were already employed in the Bamboo Club or the other two black clubs that existed back then, and the kids only wanted to play for themselves, according to Derek.
“You’ve got the music to please everybody,” they would say.
Derek first got exposure outside of Bristol at domino matches around the country, which always included dances in the evening.
When we were at dances outside of Bristol they would ask “Why have you got a white DJ?” but the standard response was “You wait ‘til you’ve heard him play.”
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, following a BBC documentary about him that Derek went from being a popular Bristol reggae DJ to gaining recognition among students and the international reggae community.
So which did he prefer, DJing or the accounting?
“My DJing career outshone my accounting career by a long way, but the accounting was a great satisfaction. But when push came to shove, I suddenly realised that I didn’t like a lot of the people I was working with at Cadbury’s – career orientated people, back-stabbers trying to get ahead after the merger. Selfish way of thinking,” he said.
However Derek was able to draw connections between the two career paths. “I can do my own books and tax returns so I don’t need to pay an accountant,” he laughed.
“Also, being a drummer and having a good arithmetical brain. A lot of drummers I know have no conception of that, but they have it intuitively. Drumming is solving maths problems all the time, certain patterns have got to fit a regular beat. As a DJ you’ve got to take it up and down in tempo to keep the dance floor going,” he explained.
“One of the positive assets of the accounting was that it trained me to be disciplined and improve my time keeping.”
He did find working with Caribbean people somewhat frustrating at the beginning of his musical career.
“They’ll admit it themselves - their time keeping is terrible. There’s a Jamaican expression: ‘Yeh right mon, mi soon come’. That could mean the next hour or the next three days!”
Reggae bands were notoriously late turning up for gigs and they’d get into all sorts of arguments about contracts when they did turn up.
“But it also became an endearing factor – this refusal to submit to the Protestant work ethic, as many of them when they were born still had real life relatives in slavery, or total exploitation of being undervalued and underpaid. So I can understand the reluctance.”
Derek hasn’t ruled out playing the occasional show again, but says it would all depend on the other artists on the bill. He doesn’t want to end up carting his kit all around the country again. While he may have put his decks away, Derek has definitely broken away from the boring accounting stereotype for good and discovered a talent that is admired around the world. As the winner of Born Dull?! 2013 personality of the year award on his retirement, we think it merits an upgrade it to a lifetime prize to reflect his amazing achievements.
DJ Derek is set to feature in an upcoming exhibition of iconic Bristolians at the city’s MShed. Filming for the documentary about his life story and involvement in the black music scene is also due to get underway in the coming weeks.
About Robert Lovell
Business and finance journalist