Derek grew up in Nilford, England, and was the son of Donald "Duff" Smalls, who ran a marginally successful telephone sanitization business, "Sani-Fone". He joined Spinal Tap in 1967 after the departure of bassist Ronnie Pudding.
Derek described the turbulent relationship of bandmates David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel as "fire and ice". He preferred to find a happy medium as "lukewarm water". He still enjoys his burl-wood pipe on occasion and continues to enhance the fit of his trousers with a strategically placed foil-wrapped cucumber, despite an embarrassing incident passing through a metal detector at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport during 1984's "Tap Into America" tour.
Smalls played killer #1 in Marco Zamboni's Roma '79. He is also a prize-winning gardener, having developed and patented a totally black rose, the Death by Midnight. He was also part of the Christian rock band Lambsblood (which played the "Monsters of Jesus" festival) and the star of a series of comical Belgian television commercials for the snack food Floop. He has one solo album, Its a Smalls World. After the band's final breakup in 1992, Derek became employed as a "floater" in an elementary school, with such duties as crossing guard and straightening library books.
The name Derek Smalls appears to come from the cover of the Jethro Tull album Thick as a Brick. The newspaper format of this album cover featured satirical classified ads including an ad for a 4' divan bed, and the offer of a "Dwarf for Rent" both of which instructed the reader to "Contact Derek Small." Ultimately (or at least, one step beyond Jethro Tull), the name appears to come from a London armed robber Derek Creighton "Bertie" Smalls, often reported as "Britain's first supergrass" (see ). This self-confessed thief was described in a BBC2 drama-documentary of 2007. Evidently there is some opprobium connected with the name, or a dig at "gangsta chic". Smalls is also a British slang for underwear. Appearance wise, he seems to be a satire of Lemmy from Motörhead, who bore a similar mutton chop/beard. His on-stage mannerisms strongly resemble those of fellow bass player Steve Dawson from the band Saxon.
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