By Geoff Simmons
It’s about halfway down Mitcham Road heading south from Tooting. The colorful yellow, green and black facade of Mixed Blessings West Indian Bakery will soon be brightened up with the addition of a blue plaque. Anyone who crosses the zebra will be cheered up at the sight of two magic words; “Reggae” and “Music”. It will be placed there later this year and will be a wonderful addition to the rich musical heritage of South London, a permanent reminder of the magnificent sounds created in this special place. And when people look up the names of the artists who have recorded there, they’ll be amazed at how many of them are so familiar!
The idea for a plaque arose out of the Black Lives Matter protests on Tooting Common last summer and a Black Pound Day bike path in September. At one of the stops, I was asked to say a few words about the history of the recording studio, which people vaguely know was once located here above the bakery. There is a call of famous names from reggae, synthpop pioneers, funkateers, glamrockers and of course the history of Bob Marley! The owner came out and we suddenly thought why not put a plaque up for everyone to hear about. A call for Crowdfunder was quickly put out as we started to fundraise. Various lockdowns slowed things down but people were very generous and we quickly reached our goal. The plaque is being made and once ready we will organize a day to put it down and invite everyone to see it unveiled.
So many people have passed through what was commonly known as TMC Studios (Tooting Music Center) but it was perhaps the reggae musicians who left the greatest legacy. Aswad, Maxi Priest, Dillinger, Black Slate, Sly and Robbie, Toots and The Maytals, Dennis Brown, Frankie Paul, Errol Dunkley, Mikey Dread, Osibisa, Leroy Smart, the list goes on… There are so many connections and threads , best summed up by pioneer rock lovers Dennis Bovell and Matumbi entwined with Wandsworth school friends Nick Straker and members of New Musik. Various engineers who worked there were later involved with some of the biggest names in the music industry.
Bernie Proctor, a former merchant seaman who turned to show business started a record and music store here in the sixties. His main claim to fame was an appearance as a harmonica player in the 1962 WWII film “The Password is Courage” starring Dirk Bogarde. Tooting had quite a Teddy Boy scene in the fifties, but has grown into a major pop music venue with big names appearing at Granada and Wimbledon Palace. Pubs like The Castle ran a blues club, and rock bands performed at The Fountain on Garratt Lane. They have all passed; The Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Mott the Hoople, The Faces, Status Quo. A Mod teenager called Marc Bolan moved in just around the corner. Bernie wanted a bit of the action and in 1971, working with engineer Steve Vaughan, he decided to start running a recording studio. One of the first to visit was Errol Brown’s hot chocolate. Other big hitmakers of the 70s, Mud and The Glitter band would follow soon. A procession of punk rockers, synthpopsters and rockers would soon also be on the track at the successful Mitcham Road factory; The UK Subs, The Slits, Girlschool, The Mobiles, Captain Sensible, The Lambrettas, The Piranhas, etc.
A lasting connection is Euel Johnson’s ‘Music Specialist’ store at Tooting’s Broadway Market, which has been trading for 49 years, for a time alongside another outlet in Brixton. In 1971, with Earl Martin and Pat Rhoden, he founded a new independent label called Jama Records. Using TMC as the main recording studio, Jama Music started out with an 8-track studio downstairs in the store. “We would bounce from one track to another while producing beautiful and formidable sounds.” Mr Johnson opened his shop in the market in 1972 and Bernie was a regular visitor most Saturday mornings, coming in to listen to demo records or new releases. A few years later, he improved the studio by massively incorporating a 16-track system with all of the available adjustable features needed for a modern studio. “Word quickly spread across Europe about this exceptional sound from Tooting that could rival any world-class recording sound.
One of the engineers there, Andy ‘McEdit’ Geirus, would agree. “There was something about the studio that reggae artists really loved – they even called it ‘Channel Two’. The construction was solid, creating a great sound quality, so it became a favorite place to record ”. He remembers his frequent nocturnal sessions, favorite of most reggae artists and a procession of big names passing through. It was tough work, with the pressure of having reggae kings like Sly and Robbie on the other side of the glass booked for a two hour session. But so many good times when they all “just sat there grooving all night.” Word spread that this was a studio in London where engineers like Andy and the late Rick Norton really knew their reggae and could give people what they wanted. Although Chris Lane of Dub Vendor remembers recommending him to UB40 for their debut album, they ended up going by mistake to another TMC, The Music Center in Wembley. Andy was part of a house group that included Limmie Snell for a time and was also a member of the Nick Straker Band. Another engineer, Pete Hammond, went on to work for Stock Aitken Waterman, producing hits for Kylie Minogue. Safta Jaffery became a big name in the management of the music industry working with The Stone Roses, Coldplay and discovering Muse.
There have been many sightings of famous names in the area to add to the TMC legend. A local resident, pregnant at the time, remembers being run over on Mitcham Road by a member of Mud. The group came running towards her pursued by a crowd of screaming schoolgirls. Les Grays apologized profusely and all was well. Musicians were constantly seen crossing the road, having a drink in The Miter, or carrying equipment. A favorite of “World of Sport”, masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki had terrified buyers running for cover when he showed up to TMC to record his entrance music dressed in his full costume. Costa, whose shoe repair shop next door has been there longer than the studio, remembers fixing a pair of boots for Gary Glitter.
There will be plenty of stories of good times and good nights here, but maybe the one most locals have heard about happened shortly after the owners of the bakery moved in. Renovations took place and they removed a temporary partition to reveal a wall covered with signatures. Bob Marley’s name stood out clearly among them. Sadly that was before everyone took pictures of everything and in the chaos of construction the wall was smashed and loaded into a dumpster. Bob was of course based in London in the early 1970s and then lived for a period just up the street near Battersea Park and Kennington. A Mauritian friend of mine swears he saw him on a bus in Blackshaw Road, but the story that he had a nursing girlfriend in St George’s might stretch him.
Tragically, Bernie’s son was killed by a drunk driver and the TMC studios sadly disappeared around 1987. Bernie has also passed away and only many loving mentions and scattered memories remain online. It is a place that has clearly held dear memories for many people and is associated with so many extraordinary talents that it deserves to be recognized. On behalf of everyone who contributed to the plaque, we are very proud to present this story to a wider audience. It is our mark of appreciation for all the musicians, engineers and technicians whose art and skills have given people so much pleasure.
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