Bell, George Derek Fleetwood (1935–2002), musician and composer, was born 21 October 1935 in Belfast, the son of William Bell, a banker. When he was two, a doctor told his parents that he was going blind and suggested musical toys as therapy. He was in fact merely short-sighted, but his interest in music was formed and he began studying the piano at the age of nine, composing his first piano concerto when he was eleven. He wrote to the BBC suggesting that the concerto be recorded, and thus began a regular slot performing on the radio programme Children's hour.
In 1951 Bell won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, from where he graduated in 1957; two years later he graduated B.Mus. from TCD. Having travelled across Europe and America studying and playing music, he learned a wide variety of instruments and at one point he was the principal oboe, horn and piano player for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. He also appeared with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the symphony orchestras of Pittsburgh, Moscow, Liverpool, London, Budapest and Dublin. He began playing the harp while he was back in Belfast in the mid-1960s, managing the Belfast Symphony Orchestra, and began studying the instrument. By 1965 he was employed by the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra as principal harpist and second oboist. He was later appointed professor of harp at the Belfast Academy of Music. Throughout his life, Bell maintained his career as a classical composer and harpist, writing three piano sonatas, two symphonies and several film soundtracks, as well as recording eight solo instrumental harp albums, including Carolan's receipt (1975) and Derek Bell plays with himself (1981).
In a parallel career Bell was a key member of the revered Irish traditional music group the Chieftains, whom he met in 1972 when they had already recorded three albums; he went on to record more than thirty albums with the group. Having been refused leave of absence from the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra to tour with the Chieftains in America in 1974, he resigned and joined the group full-time when they turned professional in 1975. His harp and keyboard playing, and much else, became a defining feature of subsequent performances, as the group signed for Island Records and released a series of critically acclaimed albums. Highlights of their career included a 1983 performance with a Chinese folk orchestra at the Great Wall of China. Moving beyond the domain of their traditional Irish music forte, the band also released a series of collaborative projects with a range of popular music contemporaries. In 1987 they recorded ‘Irish heartbeat’ with Van Morrison; in 1991 ‘The bells of Dublin’ featured Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful and Jackson Browne; and they also performed with artists such as Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and Roger Daltrey of The Who. Their greatest crossover success came with their album of 1995, The long black veil, which included contributions from Sting, Tom Jones and the Rolling Stones. Even as such collaborations were in train, Bell was insisting that the band continue to release traditional music. Their album of 1992, The Celtic harp, won the band one of their six Grammy awards.
For many years Bell was involved with Hindu yogi. He was a friend of Swami Kriyananda, also known as J. Donald Walters, and wrote the preface to one of his books. His album Mystic harp, vol. II was a new-age solo harp interpretation of a collection of compositions by Kriyananda. An acknowledged musical genius, he had a wonderfully absurd sense of fun, delighting in surreal humour. He was appointed MBE in 2000 and lived in Bangor, Co. Down, with his wife, Stephanie, before dying suddenly on 17 October 2002 in Phoenix, Arizona, where he had undergone minor surgery following a Chieftains tour. In 2005 the Chieftains released the album Live From Dublin: a tribute to Derek Bell, recorded during a series of special tribute concerts in his memory that were broadcast live on RTÉ radio.