Derek Albion Smalls is a fictional character played by Harry Shearer in the spoof rockumentary This is Spinal Tap. He is the bassist for mock British heavy metal group Spinal Tap, playing alongside guitarists Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), as well as with a plethora of drummers and keyboardists.
Derek grew up in Nilford-on-Null in the West Midlands, England, where his father, Donald “Duff” Smalls, ran a telephone sanitisation business, “Sani-Fone”. He joined Spın̈al Tap in 1967 after the departure of bassist Ronnie Pudding.
Derek has described bandmates David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel as “distinct types of visionaries … like fire and ice”, saying that he considered his role in the band to be “in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water”. A pipe-smoker, he has been known to enhance his appearance by placing a foil-wrapped courgette in his trousers, which resulted in an embarrassing incident passing through a metal detector at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport during 1982’s “Tap Into America” tour.
Smalls played killer #1 in Marco Zamboni’s Roma ’79, and is the star of a series of comical Belgian television commercials for the snack food Floop. He is also a prize-winning gardener, having developed and patented a totally black rose, the Death by Midnight. He released a solo album, It’s a Smalls World, in the mid 1970s, and also played in the Christian rock band Lambsblood in the late 1980s before rejoining Spinal Tap for their reunion tour in 1992. During this period, he also worked briefly for his father’s business. After the band broke up in 1992, Derek became employed as a “floater” in an elementary school, with such duties as crossing guard and straightening library books. According to the 2007 short film Spinal Tap, it is revealed that Derek checked into rehab to be treated for an addiction to the internet.
Sources for character
The character appears in part to be a satire of Lemmy from Motörhead, who wore a similar mutton chop beard. His on-stage mannerisms resemble those of fellow bass player Steve Dawson from the band Saxon. Harry Shearer went on the road with the band to pick up bass-playing tips before filming This is Spinal Tap. In the film, Smalls can be seen wearing both a Shrewsbury Town football shirt and a West Ham baseball cap.
Jethro Tull singer Ian Anderson has claimed that the name was derived from the name “Derek Small”, which appears in the liner notes of two of the band’s albums (Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play). Anderson has asked Shearer in person about the origin of the name, to which Shearer responded “I don’t know—it just came out of my head,” though Anderson recalls then asking Shearer, “I don’t suppose, Harry, you happen to have a copy of Thick as a Brick in your record collection at home?” to which Anderson concluded (from Shearer’s reaction): “And he knew I’d got him then.”