Life, Music, and the Harman-Kardon Incident
Memories of the Phonograph
By Kim (Kaj) Keister 2020 (1)
One of the greatest pleasures in my life is listening to music, easily outdistancing other interests such as collecting sports memorabilia, craft beer, a daily walk and (gasp!) even following my beloved Nebraska Cornhusker football. I can't imagine life without music. Since I can't sing…and my instrument playing ended with 2nd chair trombone in the Millard Lefler Junior High 8th grade band, I rely on others to satisfy that passion. Nearly all my music listening happens using some sort of musical reproduction equipment. There is an occasional bar band or concert event, but that time pales in comparison.
The following is my best recollection of the phonographs and associated music playing equipment that I grew up with and owned into my early adult years. There's also some extra 'my life' information included for context and because one memory sometimes leads to another one.
And there is one music system that gets special attention for some of the best memories I have of the phonograph and music, and also because that system was involved in what I now, with a smile, call "the Harman-Kardon Incident."
December 1963, Kim's birthday party. Jim Heckman watches Kim play his trombone.
Ted tries another tune. L-R Jim Heckman, DB, John Fenton, Kim Keister and Ted Sonderreger
My first nine years were spent at 724 South 45th Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. The house was a modest wood frame two story in a neighborhood that pretty much defined middle class. As was the case for many homes in the fifties, a basement recreation room was finished off by my dad and consisted of knotty pine walls, a tiled floor and an interlocking cardboard type material for the ceiling. This rec room was where our "sound system" was. I didn't have my own 'kiddie' record player, unlike some of my friends who had a store brand or perhaps even a character branded record player like a Howdy Doody or Mickey Mouse phonograph. Our two piece system consisted of an RCA model 45J record player that had a cord in the back which attached to a table radio that sat next to it. The "software" for our record player was 45 rpm records. The player did have an automatic record changer but it was not a multi-speed player for 78's or any other speed.
Kim (looking through telescope, brother Doug standing in back to left and brother Dave directly in front of Doug) at his 8th birthday party with radio on back shelf which plugged into the RCA record player as its speaker
I can still picture an Elvis Presley cardboard 45 rpm jacket which housed a record which included the song Jailhouse Rock. We also had an assortment of children's records, but I don't recall much playtime for those. That RCA held up pretty well considering three boys under 13 were playing records on it.
In November of 1959, we moved to a new custom built ranch house at 6120 "L" Street. This was to be my home up to my college years. The RCA 45J and radio accompanied our move. Sometime in those early years on "L" Street, we upgraded the turntable to one that could play 33 1/3 records, although album purchases would be limited. Naturally, we had to start using those yellow 45 adapters that have now become kind of a period piece icon.
One evening, when the family was shopping at Gold's, we managed to convince Katherine (my mother) to give us some money to buy an album. We decided on purchasing an LP that was a record that of radio broadcast highlights from the 1962 Cornhusker football season by local sportscaster Bob Zenner. 1962 was coach Bob Devaney's first year at Nebraska and the season had gone well so Husker fans were happy to listen to games again and relive highlights. This choice, however, did not go well with Katherine. Most likely she was expecting we would pick an album that actually contained music. Katherine was never a fan of the football mania that is part of our state's identity. Our days of securing funds for an album purchase were over. It was one and done for her.
At some point in the early sixties, we must have successfully lobbied our parents that the old 45 rpm system needed to be upgraded for our rec room. Like our previous house, my dad had once again finished off a large room in the basement with a tiled floor, installed a ceiling with those interlocking cardboard type squares, put up a knotty pine wall, and painted the cement block walls a dull green. Those walls eventually were paneled as the knotty pine option of the fifties went out of style, although the existing single wall served as the partition for brother Doug's bedroom (and later Kim's once Doug exited).
The rec room included a pool table, an upright piano, dart board, table top hockey game and a makeshift bar which became the playing surface for hundreds of games of Hearts, the serving table for a great deal of Valentino's pizza, and other uses, as needed.
Mom sitting at the bar in the basement wrapping presents.
Part of the furnishings included the popular "Cowboy" furniture of the time and there was also a fireplace. The rec room became an extremely popular neighborhood hangout, almost a magnet if you will. The three brothers were all within four years of age and we all had plenty of friends. Lots of good memories.
Kim playing pool with neighbor Stan Delair
Brother Dave poses in front of the rec room fireplace with a Doris Day album. Dave loved Doris Day.
But, back to the music system upgrade. Enter middle brother Doug. Doug had a friend, Kurt, whose father worked at a bank. Through a possible repossession (not totally sure), a portable music system was available. It looked like a piece of green luggage. But, the most challenging issue would be that it only ran on batteries! Now, keep in mind, this was long before the advent of rechargeable alkalines and I'm pretty sure most in my generation have experienced leaky Ray-O-Vacs in their flashlights.
Anyway, we purchased this portable phonograph even though it was destined to always have a dead power source. And no one was very anxious to buy more batteries when it went dead. So it shouldn't be surprising that I don't remember using that record player and questionable purchase very much, no doubt due to it always having dead batteries. The sound was also extremely mediocre. Thus, the unit was soon latched up and buried in one of the shelves of the bar. Eventually it must have met its fate, into the garbage or possibly it became a charitable donation.
So, record playing returned to that old, 45 rpm record player plugged into a radio.
Getting ready to party in the Rec Room
In the fall of 1964 I entered the 8th grade and was deep into adolescence. It's an awkward stage of life for most of us, exacerbated by attempted interactions with the opposite sex. Nevertheless, I had talked my parents into hosting a party that included…girls! As I look back, I wonder what prompted me to want to take on such a potentially painful endeavor, but I did. Problem was, all we had for a sound system was still that primitive record changer/radio combination.
My friend, Jim Heckman, had a portable stereo system that, while definitely not producing a high quality sound, was a sizable upgrade over what we had in our rec room. I borrowed Jim's stereo for the party. While I don't remember much from that event (possibly memory erasure of something that didn't go right), I believe they (mom & dad) may have been a tad bit embarrassed that I had to borrow a friend’s stereo for the party. it prompted Carl (my dad) and Katherine into purchasing a similar type portable stereo system like Jim's to replace our old RCA. The unit was grey in color, with detachable speakers that were spread apart to increase the stereo effect. Choices then were mono or for a buck more, stereo albums. The turntable was a base level Garrard. It was purchased at Gold's where we always received a discount since my father was employed there for most of his working life.
The new portable certainly increased my purchase of records (mostly albums) and became a key drain of my discretionary income. For some reason, the album I associate most with that portable stereo was Revolver by The Beatles. And for some additionally odd reason, the song "Tomorrow Never Knows" always comes to mind. And, I really don't even care for it, with it's annoying "Indians attacking" awkward sound (at least my interpretation). But "Tomorrow Never Knows" certainly seems an appropriate song as I finish up writing this story during the spring of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.
At some point during those years, a combination console stereo/television was obtained for the upstairs. This was the era of large entertainment units. For many homes, console stereos were selected as pieces of furniture first and as a music system second. They usually contained mediocre equipment, but were what most regarded at the time as what a stereo should be. While the television part of the system received constant use (it was a color tv) the music part was rarely played since it was upstairs and not in our basement 'retreat' where we could actually have enjoyed it.
I don't think my brother Doug would object to being characterized as one who marches to the beat of a different drummer. Fact is he would embrace it. In the fall of 1965, he had a summer job at ISCO. (Instrumentation Specialties Company). ISCO provided him access to a number of tools and industrial machinery. Doug had a vision to build the ultimate home entertainment system, which he planned to house in his basement bedroom, just off the rec room. It would center around a giant metal plate that he had manufactured at ISCO. The metal plate had plenty of drilled holes, which were to accommodate future switches for multiple speakers. It included some cutouts for the turntable and two mono amplifiers on the shelf behind the plate. The plate was attached to a crudely built, very large cabinet. Above the plate was a black and white tv (which I don't believe ever worked) and a reel to reel tape recorder. At the base of the cabinet was a storage area, possibly intended for albums.
Doug also built two large cabinets which housed speakers that he had purchased mail order. The system actually didn't sound too bad…and could get very loud. My most musical memory of it was the song "I'm a Man" that was off the "Having A Rave-Up" album by the Yardbirds. At the end of "I'm A Man" is a rough guitar riff that was fun to turn up and I'm sure greatly annoyed the adults upstairs. It was played many, many times. The whole system, cabinet included, was eventually sold before Doug left Lincoln in December of 1968 to follow his dream of living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
All this while I became more curious and fascinated by higher quality music systems. The component hi-fi business was still in its early stages, kind of a niche market. However, specialty stores that offered such equipment began to appear in Lincoln. Among them were World Radio, Team Electronics, Kustom Electronics…and a funky little business in the 300 block of South 11th named Electronics Unlimited. Mail order options such as Radio Shack and Allied were also part of their business.
In the summer of 1968 I got a summer job as a lifeguard at a Holiday Inn. It paid $1.25 an hour plus a free meal at dinner time. Hours were 2 to 10 PM, not sure the days I worked, but am thinking it was about a 40 hour week. By my estimates this lucrative job was going to bring in around $400 that summer. So my desire for a quality stereo system was becoming more of a potential reality. At that time, the base items for such a system were a (1) turntable (2) receiver (amp + tuner) and (3) a pair of speakers. For those on a limited budget and/or also to save space, a number of manufacturers offered a compact music system in which the turntable/receiver were one unit.
Sometime early that summer, after undoubtably many shopping excursions, I made the decision to purchase a Harman-Kardon SC20 compact music system at Electronics Unlimited. To keep costs down I chose a model that did not include an AM radio. Understand that at that time the AM band was the only choice for popular music. FM basically played "elevator" music. I believe it was my freshman year in college before a local radio station, KFMQ, began offering rock music at 2 PM in the afternoon. Seems odd now, but back to the purchase. Also, to further keep costs down, I eliminated an optional custom hinged dust cover in favor of a generic Garrard even though it would require extremely careful removal while a record was playing.
Also to be added to my purchase were David Clark headphones. I don't remember any friends owning quality headphones and considered it a unique purchase at the time. I didn't, however, know at the time how much enjoyment those headphones would give me as part of my my first foray into personal listening.
So I was ready to purchase my first stereo and headphones!
The Harman-Kardon Incident
Since funds were extremely limited in my Gateway Bank savings account, Electronics Unlimited offered a time payment to speed up the purchase. Figuring that those monies would be earned that summer, I opted for instant gratification and signed up for the plan, which would have involved an ongoing interest charge.
What happened next has a back story. My parents went through the Depression and I'm sure it had some impact on their spending habits. Outside of a mortgage, my family did not put any purchase on some interest bearing time payment plan! We lived within our means and if you couldn't outright buy it, you didn't…or you saved up for it. Katherine quickly discovered my purchase as soon as I brought it home and there were immediate questions: Why did I feel that I needed such an item; how much did I pay for it; where did I get the money? When she found out that I had agreed to purchase it on what I considered the perfect solution to have the system now, i.e., buying it on a time payment, a combination look of horror and anger was on her face followed by a "We don't do such a thing! What were you thinking? Paying interest? How have I raised you?"
I'm not sure what else was said but almost immediately Katherine and I were on our way down to Electronics Unlimited with cash in hand ready to pay off the transaction. We met with the salesman involved and Mom scolded him for taking advantage of a naïve 17 year old by signing him up on time payments. I'm sure I was embarrassed by the whole scene, but in the end it was worth it because I still had my new H-K.
DB reading Look magazine and listening to Kim's Harman-Kardon with Dave Clark Headphones, circa 1968.
Mom paid off the Harman-Kardon SC20 and the original time payment plan, in effect, was transferred from me paying the store to me paying Mom with the rest of my summer paychecks. Nevertheless, when one reviews major purchases in their life, there are most likely great choices and some regrettable ones. HK was a great choice. I went on to enjoy that compact stereo that summer, through my senior year in high school and well into college. Eventually a reel-to-reel tape recorder was added which was later replaced by a cassette playing unit.
High School Yearbook Advertisement for Electronics Unlimited 1969
I had always wanted to go away for college and for my junior year, I somehow convinced my parents of this, despite all the advantages of staying in Lincoln and continuing on at UNL. I decided on Arizona State University, not because of any kind of educational advantage, but I had some buddies already attending down there, plus a great climate that seemed to be an obvious advantage over those long Midwest winters.
In the fall of 1971, I piled my essentials into the hand-me-down Ford Fairlane and headed to Tempe, Arizona. Naturally, HK was included in the move. I shared a small apartment just off the ASU campus with a fraternity brother, Dick Barney. Our apartment was just steps away from the complex's pool and many hours were spent with the HK blaring out our open front door and me laying on a chase lounge soaking in hours of the Arizona sun. My course load was rather minimal.
ASU Apartment with Dick pointing out that this was home and the place to come if you wanted to swim and hear the H-K System
Dick listening to the HK SC20 Music System inside our ASU apartment
But alas, the component market was exponentially growing and I was keeping my eye on the latest and greatest. Mail order wholesalers began showing up all over. In the spring of 1972 I became aware of a particular discounter whose warehouse was in San Luis Obispo, California. My coveted HK had lost its luster and what was now being offered in the market produced a higher quality sound and a bigger bang for the buck. Ultimately, a new stereo receiver was purchased from that California discounter while I was still attending school. A pair of speakers and turntable followed. But the ASU adventure had also run its course, I was homesick. I had gotten back together with my girlfriend in Lincoln so soon I was headed back to Nebraska for my senior year. The once treasured HK was left behind and sold (i.e., practically given away) to my second semester roommates.
In 1972 Quadraphonic sound had become the latest rage, although it was later to become a commercial failure. Pioneer, among others, offered an adapter that integrated with an existing stereo receiver, producing a kind of a faux quad sound. So with this adapter I added another pair of speakers to complete my "faux quad" system and everything was set up back in my room back at my parent's home on "L" Street.
Pioneer Quad Receiver QX-4000, 1972-74
I graduated from UNL in August of 1973 and married the next day. The quad system went with us down to Beatrice, Nebraska, where my wife had a teaching job and we rented a split level home. Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out just what I wanted to do with my life. In December of 1974, we decided that Beatrice was not a good fit and we moved back to Lincoln. Before the move, the entire quad system was sold to a student at Beatrice High.
Beatrice home with Ford Fairlane
I had taken a job selling stereo components at Stereo Studio at Gateway Mall in Lincoln in the fall of 1974. Oddly enough, this was the new name Electronics Unlimited had given for their second store, evidently feeling the Electronics Unlimited name wasn't capturing what they were offering to the general public. Through Stereo Studio a new system was purchased which was a Yamaha receiver and turntable, plus a pair of ESS speakers. Also I had to include some Sennheiser headphones since the Clarks had run their course. I can still picture that unit sitting in our apartment on the south side of Lincoln.
Selling retail Hi-Fi equipment for me, however, didn't last long. In the spring of 1975 I was, and I quote, "laid off." The summer retail slowdown had begun, but truthfully my attitude probably was showing as I again pondered what was I doing working retail for minimum wage with a college degree. It was shortly after that that I answered an ad in the paper for Pegler and Company…beginning a 43 year career in foodservice distribution. In 1976, we built our first house on 36th Street in Lincoln. Jean (my wife) had been commuting to Beatrice during this time, but got on with Lincoln Public Schools in the fall. That Yamaha/ESS system went with us to the 36th Street house. And that's where I'll conclude the tale.
My component purchasing never stopped and everything was gradually replaced again and again through the years. What stands out the most was that first compact disc player I ever bought. It was in the range of $700…we're talking 1980's dollars, but what an improvement over a turntable and LPs (that said with an apology to the vinyl analog purists).
Technics Compact Disc Player
Nowadays, most listening is with my iPod from music downloaded out of an iTunes library. I have a nice entertainment system in the house, but its mostly used for movies and television. The days of sitting around listening to music with a group of friends are few and far between. The music that is played on this system is usually from one of the channels offered with the TV package and it follows a genre format.
Times have changed. However, I still look back fondly at that Harman-Kardon SC20 system and the joy and excitement it brought me during a "rights of passage" time in my life.
It was a memorable purchase and it always puts a smile on my face when I think about it.
That's my story.
"That's my story." May 2020
The back of Harman-Kardon SC20 system