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Cave Digging: The Cavern Sound

Independence has always been full of holes: subterranean tunnels, secret passages, mines, hidden hollows, and reverberating caverns. A place tailor-made for making lots of noise in private, the Kansas City suburb of Independence, Missouri, is riddled with untold natural cavities and a slew of manmade mines that’ve been delivering zinc, copper, nickel, and cobalt for more than a hundred years. But when Gerald “Jerry” Riegle rented space in the old Pixley Quarry, an active limestone mine, his intent was to work a vein of recorded sound. One of the strangest recording studios ever built, the aptly-named and actually subterranean Cavern Sound soon collected a cast of characters—the country-loving general manager, the young rocker, the Sun Records rockabilly pilot—and a dedicated clientele of religious groups, schools, country singers, and rock ‘n’ roll dreamers hoping to stumble across the true sound of the underground.

Reigle’s journey into the underworld really begins with a church and its tape duplication needs. Independence is most famous as the birthplace of President Harry Truman, but it was also home to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). In the early 1960s, well before his descent, Riegle was a pious believer, running the church-affiliated Audiographics Labs as a member of the church. Today known as the Community of Christ, the RLDS church had broken off from the Mormons in an 1860 schism. But they could still afford a 109-rack Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ in their headquarters in Independence that sounded fantastic playing Handel’s Messiah through 6,334 individual pipes for some 1,700 radio stations. Riegle was the man recording and duplicating the tapes for Auditorium Organ, a half-hour radio program that aired every Saturday.


Needing to house Audiographics' growing operation and towering stacks of tapes, Riegle stumbled upon the hidden world lying beneath his feet. Rent under the dirt came dirt cheap: John Pixley was offering 20-year leases on huge spaces, pennies per square foot, in his old limestone mine at 16400 East Truman Road. Giant rock pillars held up the roof, it was 55 degrees inside all year round, and the wildest echoes bounced off the grey stone walls. Jerry set about walling off his space, wiring it for electricity and plumbing, laying down carpeting and installing risers, a grand piano, a four-track recording console—anything to make it feel less like a hole in the ground. 


By 1966, he began to invite church choirs and school bands to record down in his Truman Road abyss. “The cars would just drive into the side of the mountain, right from the highway,” said Daniel Brewster of the band Baxter’s Chat. They wouldn’t stop rolling in for another thirteen years. 




Hoping to expand his clientele, Riegle took on two partners—a friend named Art Hoover and John Pearson, a country & western bassist with a degree in engineering. “They would stick a couple of microphones up in the air for a choir, but they hadn’t evolved any mic-ing techniques for, say, a set of drums or the individual bass or guitar or piano,” said Pearson. Soon a general manager at Cavern, Pearson found that the studio space was, quite literally, cavernous—100 feet across with 20-foot ceilings—and that the cave’s natural reverberation was not necessarily a good thing. “In reality, the limestone walls and roof were more of a problem than anything, because it created acoustics we couldn’t control,” said Pearson. “Sound would bounce around terribly.” 


He set about turning the raw space into a suitable recording environment, with audio dividers, acoustic baffles, isolation booths, quality equipment, microphone set-up, and a proper control room. “That was my contribution at the onset there,” said Pearson. “To get all of the pieces put together to where you could really do a recording.” 


Pearson brought his small label, Pearce Records, with him from Nashville, using his vantage as Cavern’s lead engineer and general manager to choose the most promising groups to press up and release, hoping for a big hit. Inspired by Pearson, Hoover founded Cave Records, while Riegle ran the Cavern and Rock labels as vanity presses for anyone willing to pay. An illustration that used the record hole as a cave opening—created by the Classmen’s Drew Dimmel—adorned the labels of all three ventures, making each piece of vinyl a trip into a mysterious netherworld, sound spilling out of the hole, daring anyone standing at the precipice to enter the darkness.

The experience of recording at Cavern delivered on the provocative label’s promise. “It was mind-blowing. It was absolutely the strangest place we’d ever been,” said Chuck Emery of the band Mulligan. “You drive into a cave and suddenly you walk into this big recording studio and the studio room was huge.”


While the studio and its associated labels took shape, Riegle tended to his enterprise’s foundation: the Auditorium Organ still needed to be recorded and duplicated every week. Jim Wheeler, unable to find work in California, rode his motorcycle back home to Independence and a job running the tapes. “I was in school, pre-med biochemistry major, had a real high GPA,” said Wheeler. “I just wasn’t having much fun in my life, I decided. I took a hard left and went into rock ‘n’ roll. But to get there, I had to do this pipe organ program.”


While Wheeler spun wheels of tape, doing Riegle’s duplications for three years, he gradually become more and more of a presence at Cavern. His rock ‘n’ roll proclivities sealed his fate at the straight-laced RLSD church. “As my hair was getting longer and my beard was getting more unkempt and my lifestyle was changing, I became less and less, shall we say, palatable,” Wheeler remembered. “It was the world headquarters of this church. I pretty soon didn’t fit in very well there.” Wheeler found a much better fit in Cavern’s infernal depths. With Pearson focused on country and Riegle on gospel, Wheeler dove into his dream job—as the main engineer for Cavern’s rock sessions.



Riegle wasn’t the first man to take Pixley up on his cheap rents and long leases, and Cavern wasn’t the only business buried under Truman Road. Cavern’s neighbors included food storage units, a lawnmower manufacturing company, and a sailboat factory. “Of course, they used all these highly toxic resins,” said Wheeler, “and ventilation down there isn’t what it should be. I probably shaved a few years off my life.” 


And a sequestered life at that. Dust and lack of daylight reminded everyone that they were, in fact, at work inside one of Independence’s many holes. The outside world receded into mystery after hours spent recording underground. “A lot of time, it would be raining or thundering, a snowstorm,” said Bob Theen of rock bands Pretty and Sheriff. “Sometimes, it was a big surprise when you drove out of that cave.”


To drive in the opposite direction—deeper underground, further into the caves—was even more disorienting. “I probably drove 30 minutes into the tunnels and could not find the end,” said Jim Stringer of the band Tide. “It gets pitch-black and freaky as heck. Some places are filled up with water. It’s a very, very bizarre thing.” 


Past the cave’s business spaces, the lights that Pixley had strung up also ended, leaving any explorers in a starless total darkness that terrified the less brave. ”I had a couple girlfriends that I thought this would be a great place to park, but it was a little weird for them too,” said Doug Dimmel of the Classmen. “You get way back in there and it could be too quiet and you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face, so it could be creepy.”

The tunnels did eventually end, reemerging into the daylight at an apocalyptic rock crusher that pulverized limestone and covered everything nearby in grey powder. There was also Pixley’s still-active mining operation, blasting bedrock and hauling stone to the crusher to produce the gravel and concrete necessary to build a burgeoning American infrastructure. 


“My recollection is that occasionally you would hear dynamite go off,” said Chris Bauer, who later subleased the space. “It was kind of a rumble.”


In addition, certain mine space had been set aside as a fallout shelter in case of catastrophic nuclear war. Authorities had taken to storing food inside, plus other necessities for the last survivors of mankind. “We always joked a nuclear bomb could have gone off outside and we could have lived in there for a year on the 20-year-old civil defense crackers,” said Bauer.  


It wasn’t always a joke: Mark Weedle, a young sound tech and partner in Audiographics, faced this uncomfortable reality. After partaking of Wheeler’s stash, Weedle took a wrong turn in the tunnels, to head straight at the hungry rock crusher. What greeted his addled vision was a hellish, colorless world fallen into annihilation. Dust covered everything, the very leaves on the trees shocked to ghostly tones of white and grey. “He had himself convinced that World War III had happened while he was in the cave,” said Wheeler. “He came out and this is what the world looked like now.”

Despite such paranoid visions, the hottest years of the Cold War had already passed by the time of Cavern’s tenure. The civil defense vaults remained, forgotten and filled with empty boxes and echoes, wasting away waiting for Armageddon. More than the moldy cheese and stale crackers, the echoes were what caught the attention of the Cavern crew, and they began using the old rooms as echo chambers, running cable out over the dirt floors from the studio to the vaults and back again.


Hoping to spruce the space up beyond Riegle’s meager interior decorating, Wheeler did anything he could—painting, mood lighting, carpeting, fake flowers, whitewashing the walls, putting up a picket fence around the entrance. “Of course, after six months of all those trucks rumbling by, it was all covered with dust and looked the same anyway,” he said. “Plus, the sun didn’t shine down there. It was a depressing place.”


Although the musicians who recorded there remember Cavern as a clean space, the engineers fought a constant battle with limestone dust. Mining trucks kicked up grit and granules that worked their way into the studio. “Anything left out on a stand for any amount of time we would bag to keep the dust out of it,” said Chapman. The ceiling itself rained dust and stone every spring when the ground thawed and expanded in the heat, sprinkling equipment and customers with stone flakes. The stubborn dust mixed with moisture in the air to create a lime paste that inevitably marred sensitive audio equipment. 


“You couldn’t wipe it off because it wasn’t totally dry,” said Bauer, “I spent all this money and time building this recording console and there would be just little trace amount of this light paste in there and it was starting to freak me out.”



Also hanging around underfoot was Jim Williams, a man more accustomed to inhabiting the clouds. While working a day job as a TWA instructor pilot, Williams was a partner in Pearce Records and, after descending from the open air, would often bring promising groups down to the cave to record. “Usually he just hung around and showed us pictures of stewardesses,” said Chuck Emery of Mulligan. “He was a pretty raunchy guy sometimes.”


Williams had a long history in the recording industry, spending his youth releasing several rockabilly singles on Memphis’ legendary Sun Records in the late ’50s. “I was 18 years old at the time, thought I was going to be the next Elvis,” said Williams. “God, was I a good looking devil.” Two decades and a lifetime of disappointment later, he found his way to Cavern, the studio closest to where he lived. Crucially, Williams had also recorded with Memphis mega-producer Chips Moman of American Sound Studios, who had created a string of 120 timeless hits for Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Bobby Womack, Neil Diamond, B. J. Thomas, Carla Thomas, the Box Tops, and dozens more. Apparently bored by his total domination of the pop charts, Moman decided to close American Sound in 1972 and sell his magic-making equipment—including an AMPEX 16-track recorder and Electrodyne console—to Williams, who hauled them to Independence. To accommodate the new gear, the Cavern crew subdivided the space, building a new studio area and constructing a freestanding cedar building inside the cave to serve as the control room.


With Moman’s Midas-touched equipment installed, Cavern became the first 16-track studio in the area and set about literally swallowing up the competition. Damon Studio had been the premier recording destination in Kansas City, founded in the 1930s by Vic Damon, the legendary engineer known both for creating the spring reverb system and for being the first to record Charlie Parker. By 1973, he was ready to retire and sold his studio equipment to his young protégé Chuck Chapman. Unfortunately, the retirement was short-lived; Vic Damon died the following year at the age of 73. 


“When I bought Damon,” said Chapman, “Cavern was who we had to come up against for all our business.” Still making payments on the old man’s equipment a year later, Chapman moved his eight-track operation into Cavern’s newly divided second room to form Cavern/Damon. This meant bringing Damon’s old lathe with him, allowing the underground studio to master and cut vinyl for the first time. According to Chapman, the location underground was only a disadvantage when dealing with particularly claustrophobic clients. “A certain type of person would not come in there.” 


Such fears were not unfounded—being prematurely entombed remained a very real possibility. A portion of the roof once collapsed on the lawnmower company, crushing equipment. The prospect of being buried alive did not deter the owners, who merely walled off the rubble and rented more space adjacent. “We harvested a bunch of slate that fell out of the ceiling and made a fountain in the lobby out of it,” said Weedle. “I probably didn’t have the sense to think that 600,000 tons of crap could fall out of the ceiling on you and crush you like a bug.”



Cavern/Damon’s dominance of the local market was short-lived, as the 1973 oil embargo and personality clashes caused things to unravel. The price of tape and vinyl spiked as petroleum became scarce, and Riegle eventually severed relations with each and every person who had worked at Cavern. “I honestly believe sometimes they made their business decisions based on religion,” said Weedle, “and a lot of us in the recording business were, let’s face it, we were heathens....He had fallings out with just about everybody. Even me.”


Maybe it was the claustrophobia or vitamin D deficiency, but Riegle’s subterranean life seemed to breed close-held paranoia. Chapman said the engineers discovered hidden wires that fed the control room’s talk-back mic to a tape recorder in Cavern’s business office. “So whoever was messing with that recorder could actually listen in.” Wheeler climbed to the surface in 1974, upset over Riegle’s business practices and his lack of credit on albums. After rolling through Denver, Chicago, and Omaha, Wheeler eventually returned to Kansas City to found his own Wheeler Audio. 


As business continued to sour, Pearson too left acrimoniously in 1975. He spent the rest of his career working at Unity School of Christianity as communications director and engineer, eventually retiring from the musician’s life. “Just a few years ago, I sold my old Fender jazz bass on eBay,” said Pearson. “That was the Hallmark end.” 


Within a year, Chapman also headed for daylight to start his own Chapman Recording. With Cavern collapsing in on all sides, Riegle sold him the old American Sound equipment and closed the cave in 1977, to search for a sub-lessee.


Still, all was not silent under the earth, thanks to Chris Bauer. The young Bauer was obsessed with audio, playing around Kansas City in bands like the Classmen, selling high-end stereo equipment, and showing up any time Cavern had a public event or open house. With the space up for rent, Bauer took the chance to revive the studio with his partners Mick Warnock and George Ross. Installing his own home-built console, Bauer set about recording bands in the old space, which he renamed Underground Sound. By 1979, that old sense of paranoia had crept into Bauer’s operation, too. “I was a little bit cave crazy after a few years,” he said. 

Kansas City’s Titan power-pop label had done much of its recording at Chapman Sound. Titan co-owner and record collector Tom Sorrells became interested in the Cavern Records 45s he was used to seeing at used record stores. When he tracked down Riegle’s subterranean lair, Sorrells found it was being rented to bands for use as a practice space. With the lease on the cave expiring in the mid-’80s, Riegle offered to sell what that was left of Cavern—contact sheets, files, business cards, contracts, 45s, master tapes, anything and everything. Sorrells carted away the remains of the once mighty studio in a Ryder truck and stored it in his basement, preserving it all for the ages—and letting a stray track dribble out on the occasional compilation.


Free of his past, Riegle set his sights on the next unconventional piece of real estate, relocating his duplication efforts to a barn and expanding services to include the new VHS cassette technology. Though he sold the business in 1994, the rechristened Audio-VideoGraphics continues to this day, operating out of an ordinary strip mall only ten minutes away from 16400 East Truman Road. Most of Riegle’s former employees remained friendly with each other, working together in different combinations at different studios over the years since—though none knows Riegle’s ultimate fate. According to Chapman, “The only thing still left of Cavern was the concrete slab on which it sat.” 


Businesses continue to operate out of the Pixley mine. No longer lit by the fires of rock ‘n’ roll, it is today less a site of creation than of recreation, having been colonized by joggers and paintballers. The rest of the maze of catacombs twisting in and under Independence, Missouri, remain a hidden highway cut into the earth, lights out, hoarding mystery and awaiting the day some intrepid new explorer comes to exhume their secret sounds. 


– Ryan Boyle, May 2014