Inquest unable to solve mystery of DJ Derek's death

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Body of the Bristol music figure who went missing in July 2015 was too decomposed to establish how he died, says coroner

Inquest unable to solve mystery of DJ Derek's death
DJ Derek became a well-known figure on the reggae scene. Photograph: Bristol News and Media/Avon and/PA

Mystery is likely to forever surround the death of the legendary Bristol music figure DJ Derek, whose body was found in woodland nine months after he vanished.

Police have ruled out foul play and his family said he would not have taken his own life but an inquest was told it had not been possible to establish cause of death because his remains had lain undiscovered for so long.

DJ Derek – Derek James Serpell-Morris – went missing in July 2015 aged 74. After a high-profile search his remains were found in March in undergrowth close to Cribbs Causeway shopping centre about seven miles from his home.

Derek, dubbed the blackest white man in Bristol, was hugely respected and loved in the St Pauls area of the city, where he lived and worked as a DJ. He was friends with members of the band Massive Attack, played Glastonbury and appeared in a Dizzee Rascal video.

Giving evidence at his inquest near Bristol on Friday, DC Carol Doxsey, of Avon and Somerset police, said: “Everybody we spoke to had only good things to say about [Derek]. Nobody had any problems with him.”

Asked if there had been evidence that he had been a victim of assault, killed elsewhere and taken to the woods, or had taken his own life, Doxsey said: “No, nothing to suggest that.”

The inquest heard a dog walker found his body. Doxsey added: “We were unable to say how he died or why he was in that location.”

The assistant coroner Peter Harrowing was unable to establish a cause of death and recorded a short narrative conclusion. He said: “The deceased’s severely decomposed body was found in a wooded area and it cannot be known how the deceased came to be there.”

He paid tribute to the DJ, saying: “Derek was clearly a very public character in some respects.

“I am sure his passion and love of music touched the lives of all who knew him in that respect. I am sure he will be remembered fondly by all.

“However there was also a private side to Derek. Aside from his music he was a very private person. We will never know how Derek came to be where he was.”

Inquest unable to solve mystery of DJ Derek's death
DJ Derek pictured in 2007. Photograph: Alamy

Speaking after the hearing, Derek’s great-niece, Jenny Griffiths, said: “I still don’t feel like we have full closure as we don’t know anything. I don’t think anything untoward could have happened, he was loved by too many people.”

Ruling out suicide, she said: “He was too happy. He was talking about his retirement and his bus travels.”

In April hundreds attended his funeral service at St Agnes church in St Pauls, where he had lived – and performed – since the late 1970s. Among the mourners was Daddy G from Massive Attack, who had known Derek for decades and once described him as “an ambassador for cultural exchange”.

Derek was born in 1941 in Bristol, the son of a carpenter and a housewife. He first heard a black voice singing in the late 1940s when he tuned into US forces radio but his initial foray into the world of music was playing washboard in a skiffle group and drumming in a rock’n’roll band.

Initially, his career was conventional. He became an accountant for the chocolate company Fry’s, and in the early 1960s discovered Jamaican music and began attending parties in St Pauls. It was a time of strained race relations but he was welcomed by members of the African-Caribbean community.

Derek had a crisis in the late 1970s when he lost his father and his second marriage ended badly. In 1978, he moved into a dark basement flat with no central heating in St Pauls and quit his job.

He lived in the flat for the rest of his life. He found work DJing at the Star and Garter, a pub popular with Bristolians of West Indian origin, under the name DJ Derek’s Sweet Memory Sounds, and introduced each record in Jamaican patois, which he had learned in a barber shop.

By the mid-2000s he was regularly playing festivals. Some may have enjoyed the novelty value of a white, bespectacled former accountant who wore cardigans and bright waistcoats playing Jamaican music but Derek was genuinely admired and respected in the music world, even touring with Bob Marley’s legendary band the Wailers.

When Derek introduced himself to Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, Hibbert said: “You don’t have to tell me who you are. You’re the white man who talks the people’s talk and plays the people’s music.”


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