Toots Musical Roots

Its about half way down Mitcham Road heading south of Tooting. The colourful yellow, green and black façade of Mixed Blessings West Indian Bakery will soon be further enlivened by the addition of a blue plaque. Anyone crossing the zebra will have their spirits raised by the sight of two magical words; ‘Reggae’ and ‘Music’. It will be placed there later this year and be a wonderful addition to the rich musical heritage of south London, a permanent reminder of the beautiful sounds created at this special location. And when people seek out the names of the artists who recorded there, they will be amazed at how many of them are so familiar! 

The idea for a plaque came out of the Black Lives Matter protests on Tooting Common last summer and a Black Pound Day Cycle Trail in September. On one of the stops I was asked to say a few words about the history of the recording studio, that people vaguely know was once located here above the bakery. There is a roll call of famous reggae names, synthpop pioneers, funkateers, glamrockers and of course the Bob Marley story! The owner came out and we suddenly thought why not put up a plaque so everybody gets to hear about this. A Crowdfunder appeal soon kicked into action as we set about raising the cash. Various lockdowns have slowed things up but people have been very generous and we soon achieved our target. The plaque is being manufactured and once its ready, we will sort out a day to put it up and invite everyone along to see it unveiled.

So many people have passed through what was generally known as the TMC Studios (Tooting Music Centre) but its perhaps the reggae musicians who have 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 and on…There are so many connections and threads, best summed up by lovers rock pioneer Dennis Bovell and Matumbi entwined with Wandsworth school friends Nick Straker and members of New Musik. Various engineers who worked there went on to be involved with some of the biggest names in the music industry.

Bernie Proctor, an ex-Merchant navy seaman who drifted into show business set up a record and music shop here in the sixties. His main claim to fame was an appearance as a harmonica player in the 1962 Second World War film ‘The Password is Courage’ starring Dirk Bogarde. Tooting had quite a Teddy Boy scene in the fifties but evolved into a  major pop music venue with big names appearing at The Granada and Wimbledon Palais. Pubs like The Castle ran a blues club and rock bands appeared at The Fountain on Garratt Lane. They all passed through; The Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Mott the Hoople, The Faces, Status Quo. A teenage Mod called Marc Bolan moved in just round the corner. Bernie wanted a bit of the action and in 1971 working with engineer Steve Vaughan he decided to have a go at running a recording studio. One of the first to visit were Errol Brown’s Hot Chocolate. Other major seventies hitmakers, Mud and The Glitter band would soon follow. A procession of punk rockers, synthpopsters and rockers would soon also be on the trail to the Mitcham Road hit factory; The UK Subs, The Slits, Girlschool, The Mobiles, Captain Sensible, The Lambrettas, The Piranhas, on and on…

One enduring connection is Euel Johnson’s ‘Music Specialist’ shop in Tooting’s Broadway Market which has traded for 49 years, for a while 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 their main recording studio, Jama Music started with an 8 track studio downstairs in the shop. ‘We would bounce from one track to the other yet produce beautiful, terrific sounds’. Mr Johnson opened his shop in the Market in 1972 and Bernie was a regular visitor most Saturday mornings, popping in to listen to demo discs or new releases. A few years later he improved the studio massively incorporating a 16-track system with all the available adjustable features necessary for a modern studio. ‘The word soon went out around Europe about this great sound coming out of Tooting which could compete with any world-class recording sound.’ 

One of the engineers there Andy ‘McEdit’ Geirus would agree. ‘There was something about the studio that the reggae artists really loved – they even referred to it as ‘Channel Two’. The construction was solid, creating a great quality of sound so it became a favourite place to record’. He recalls frequent all-night sessions there, preferred by most reggae artists and a procession of top names passing through. It was hard work mind, with the pressure of having reggae royalty like Sly and Robbie on the other side of the glass booked for a two hour session. But so many good times when they would all ‘just sit there grooving the night away.’ Word got around 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. Though Chris Lane of Dub Vendor recalls recommending it to UB40 for their first album and by mistake they ended up going to another TMC, The Music Centre in Wembley. Andy was for a while part of a house band which featured Limmie Snell and was also a member of the Nick Straker Band. Another engineer Pete Hammond went on to work for Stock Aitken Waterman churning out the hits for the likes of Kylie Minogue. Safta Jaffery became a huge name in music industry management working with The Stone Roses, Coldplay and discovering Muse.

There were numerous sightings of famous names in the area to add to the TMC legend. One local resident, pregnant at the time, remembers being knocked over on Mitcham Road by a member of Mud. The band came running towards her pursued by a crowd of screaming schoolgirls. Les Gray apologised profusely and all was well. Musicians were constantly spotted crossing the road, having a quick drink in The Mitre or hauling equipment about. ‘World of Sport’ favourite, the masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki had terrified shoppers running for cover when he turned up at 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 recalls fixing up a pair of boots for Gary Glitter. 

There will be many stories of good times and great nights at this location but perhaps the one that most local people have heard of happened shortly after the owners of the bakery moved in. Renovations took place and they pulled back a temporary partition to reveal a wall covered in signatures. Clearly distinguishable among them was the name of Bob Marley. Sadly this was before everyone took photos of everything and in the building work chaos the wall was broken up and loaded into a skip. Bob was of course based in London in the early seventies and later lived for a period just up the road 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 girlfriend nursing at St George’s might be stretching it.     

Tragically, Bernie’s son was killed by a drunk driver and TMC Studios rather sadly faded away sometime around 1987. Bernie has also passed away and all that’s left are lots of fond mentions and scattered reminiscences online. It’s a place that clearly held very dear memories for a lot of people and is associated with so many extraordinary talents that it deserves to be acknowledged. On behalf of everyone who has contributed towards the plaque, we are so proud to bring this story to a wider audience. Its our show of appreciation for all the musicmakers, engineers and technicians whose artistry and skills have given people so much pleasure.