J.C. Penney Stereo

I think of J.C. Penney’s as strictly a clothes store these days. Clothes and bedding and coats and such… they have the occasional I-Pod equipment and a boom box or two, but that’s about it in the electronics and stereo offerings.

This was not always the case though.

Back in the day, the Ann Arbor days that is, my Middle School phase, J.C.Penney’s had a full stereo section. Records too! This was the summer of 1979 and when mom and I moved to Ann Arbor we didn’t have a real stereo. So one day while we were out shopping, she bought one.

The display racks in the JCP audio area were slanted down and covered the whole wall and we paced back and forth in front of all of them looking at all the lights and dials and buttons. I was a typical teen and was wowed by flashy shiny stuff. I had my opinion on which one was best, but of course it wasn’t the cheapest. We had about 3 in mind when a salesperson came up and we succumbed to advice, picking one that neither of us had paid attention to but that was touted as the best in its price range and our best option. I was at the time completely unaware of how my now single mom was going to pay for all this stuff. Calculating how much Mac’N’Cheese dinners would be required to counteract the price of all this gear, she said “let’s do it” and paid the man. We loaded it all into the 1970 Yellow Maverick and took home a new receiver, tape deck, record player and speakers.

Now, this was the first stereo I had ever worked with aside from the all-in-one radio/8-track/record player unit we had in the apartment in South Bend, Indiana. That phase was very influenced by “Bread – The Best of Bread”, “Neil Diamond – You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”, Donna Summer – Bad Girls”, and several “Chicago” 8-track tapes. Even at that pre-audiophile stage I knew there was something fundamentally wrong with a tape that cut 3 of 8 songs in half to accommodate its own format. I didn’t have any of my own albums then, so what my mom had WAS my collection.

The new stereo however allowed me to start my own collection. In the beginning the stereo was in the living room, under the guise that it was for everyone. I had headphones, a headphone extender and would sit at the kitchen table making a long taut limbo rail out of the length of headphone cord cutting off access to the bedrooms/bathroom.

The speakers were huge solid wood jobs that in later years were used as a bench press bench, a coffee table for a party and wouldn’t even fit in most entertainment centers we bought over the years, of which there were many. They were eventually replaced by smaller cheaper and almost as good (but not quite) small black speakers that matched better, weren’t cat clawed up, and fit into the ET section meant for speakers. The big ones were stored and now sit lonely in the basement.

I intend to dust these off and try them out again. It has been about 8 years since I used them last. I hope they still work. I would estimate them to be 35 years old. Wow.

This Ann Arbor stereo played the first albums I ever bought.

“The B-52’s – The B-52’s”

This album was purchased for the song “Rock Lobster” of course. All the music I ever heard was from the radio, so naturally, as this was white hot at the time, it was a given to buy. As it turned out, the song “Planet Claire” was the track that melted my speakers. The entire side one was tremendous. Side two didn’t really appeal to me at the time except for the song “52 Girls” which was essentially a long list of girl names. Throughout the years the notion of creating a CD with all songs with girl name for titles was a project. Eventually I created a mix on 8-Tracks, with The B-52’s song “52 Girls” as the opener, 52 girls name songs and then The Ting Ting’s song “That’s Not My Name” as a closer.


One day, in Milwaukee when the owners were out and my friend and I were hanging in my rented room, I put on “Planet Claire” at window shattering level and turned the bass all the way up and we jammed. The vibrations were astounding. When the bass guitar in the song kicked in… things in my room started moving. It was a defining moment for my stereo.

“The Cars – The Cars”

The Cars. Man, this album was everywhere all the time. It was so quirky that it got played on the new wave stations and yet still rock enough to get played on the album rock stations. It lived everywhere. “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend” was of course the song that attracted me to this one. I was going to list my favorite tracks, but they are literally all great. Every song on this album I would sing out loud and drum to occasionally on my poor pillows. I bought “The Cars – Candy-O” when that one came out. It’s almost as great as the debut, but anything after those 2 albums, meh.

“Blondie – Parallel Lines”

OMG. Blondie. I was in the right place at the right time for Debbie Harry to take over my life. This one was hot on “One Way or Another” and “Heart of Glass”, but again, every song is my favorite. In fact, this one was so enormously great that I even went out and bought Blondie’s second and previous album “Blondie – Plastic Letters” and eventually their first “Blondie – Blondie”. I then also bought the new one and in my opinion the best “Blondie – Eat To The Beat” This made them my first 4 album same band collection. I was a collector now.

“Cheap Trick – Dream Police”

I heard the song “Dream Police” on the radio and it blew my mind. This one was a must. It was my first hard rock album and it was a headphone favorite. I would blast it in my headphones and be rocking out while mom was sitting quietly on the couch watching TV or reading. In retrospect, there is no way she couldn’t have heard this leaking out of my headphones. What a strange mix of dudes. This one is still my favorite Cheap Trick album. “Gonna Raise Hell” with it’s grainy bass line still rings in my head. I eventually would buy Cheap Trick – Live At Budakon”, but “Dream Police” was the one I always played. Incidently, it was also the first album I owned where I noticed the engineering. In my opinion, the mix on the song “Dream Police” needs to have the vocals brought up more. It always bugged me, even though I still love it. If only I were the producer…

The radio was my only source of info for what to buy with my limited or allowance funds.

Some days I would sit in my bean bag chair in front of the stereo taping songs from the radio, like the early days of taping the radio with my portable tape recorder, but now on the high quality tape deck. This was how I first heard the David Bowie song “Space Oddity” that skipped and blew my mind that the intro was so repetitive and awesome and led me to buy Bowie.

I also got a Linda Ronstadt album from J.C. Penny’s tiny little record sales area. There was a safe non-hard rocking selection of stuff here, no Zeppelin or Doors, but I was hearing a bit of Linda on the radio and it was something along the lines of the music of my past (Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand) and so I picked up The Stone Pony’s – Evergreen Vol 2.

which had the song “Different Drum” and that started my Linda phase. Eventually I would have Linda posters in my room and displayed my Ronstadt albums with pride.

The J.C. Penney stereo setup that was purchased in Ann Arbor was the tipping point and from then on, I was always into music in a big way.

The speakers may be the last physical remnant, but I will never forget my first real stereo, or the records that started me out.

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