The Road of Rock is a rocky road, and no one’s life exemplifies that more thoroughly than that of Derek Albion Smalls who celebrates his 75th birthday with a hoped-to-be triumphant return to at least one of the echelons of the rock firmament.
Derek was born April 1, 1941, having to endure growing up as an “April Fool’s baby.” His father, Donald “Duff” Smalls, raised Derek after his mother, Dorothy, left home to join a traveling all-girls’ jazz band, The Hotten Totties. While Derek had a quiet school career in his hometown of Nilford, on the River Null in the West Midlands, Duff carried on his work as a telephone handset sanitizer working for the pioneering firm in the trade, Sani-Phone, until it was absorbed by the former British Telecom, primarily, according to reports at the time, for its “robust bill-collecting operation.”
At age 17 Derek enrolled in the London School of Design, primarily, as he later explained it, “because of the initials.” Like many art-school students of the period, he was more interested in music, and soon found himself a member of the all-white Jamaican band Skaface. “I never even tried to play the guitar, because it had too many strings and they were too small. Bass felt just right,” he told Ska News. Walking one day in 1967 through the then-tatty Soho district of London, Derek spotted a “bass player wanted” notice on one of the neighbourhood’s lampposts.
It turns out Ronnie Pudding had just left the band Spinal Tap for a solo career when their first single “Gimme Some Money” failed to chart. Derek fit right in and made a notable contribution to the band’s jump on the Flower Power bandwagon, mouthing a silent “We love you” at the end of its performance of “(Listen to) The Flower People” on the short-lived TV music show, “Bob’s Your Uncle.” Tap then went on to carve out a reputation as one of England’s loudest bands. Its series of mishaps—breakups and reunions, drummers perishing in bizarre ways—was chronicled in a 1984 film. “A hatchet job,” Derek calls it dismissively. “There were plenty of nights when we found our way to the stage, but of course they didn’t show you that.” In the late 1980s, as Tap’s fortunes waned, Derek joined a Christian heavy-metal band, Lambsblood. Their best-known song, “Whole Lotta Lord,” made a respectable showing on the Christian charts.
To cement his relationship with the band members, all of whom were Americans, Smalls got a Christian “fish tattoo.” As luck would have it, Tap soon reunited for the 1992 Break Like the Wind album and toured across America. Concerned that he would have to cover up the tattoo, Derek hired an artist to fix it, and the piece now featured a devil eating the fish. Following that tour, Tap broke up and reunited twice more, once in 2000 for an American tour that included a historic New York venue that Derek described, onstage, as “Carnegie Fuckin’ Hall” and in 2009 for appearances at the Glastonbury Festival and Wembley Arena.
In between, Derek cultivated a near-thriving career on camera, building upon his cameo role in the 1979 “Spaghetti Eastern” Roma ’79. He appeared in TV commercials for the Belgian snack food Floop, and served for a time as a judge (alongside the lead singer for the Europunk band Hot Garage) on the Dutch reality-competition show “RokStarz,” before the show was rebooted as “Tomorrow’s HipHop Hero.” Derek stepped forward as a composer during this time; his jingle for Floop, “I’m in the Floop Group,” was a regular earworm on European television until the publisher of “The In Crowd” threatened a plagiarism lawsuit. Derek’s fortunes have fluctuated with his romantic entanglements. His long-time girlfriend Cindy Stang went through a good share of his back royalties to launch her ill-fated tech start-up, macrame.com. Of that project, Smalls now says ruefully, “It was ahead of its time. Or behind the curve. Or both.”
He’s also had his share of personal struggles, having twice sought treatment for internet addiction. Smalls’ return to music, and composing, came courtesy of a grant from the British Fund for Ageing Rockers. As he prepares to re-enter the spotlight for the first time, Derek tips his hat to the government grantors: “At least austerity was good for something,” he says.