Collector Is King Of 8-Track Tapes


"I'm eccentric, not crazy," Paul Dorris said.

Asked if she agrees, Dorris' wife, Bonnie, laughs hysterically and then pleads the fifth.

No wonder. One peek into Paul's "music room" would make anyone question how well Paul is walking that fine line between whimsical oddness and mental instability.

In that "music room," stacked from floor to ceiling against all four walls, in multiple rows which cascade out toward the center of the room, are more than 30,000 8-track tapes.

For about 15 minutes in the 1960s, geezers may recall, 8-track tapes represented the cutting edge of music technology. Today, of course, they can't even be found in the bargain-basement discount bins of music stores.

"You might be crazy and not eccentric," the owner of this collection is told by a visitor. "It's something to consider, Paul. You may need professional help."

Make no mistake. Dorris, a 71-year-old retired alarm-company executive, has every appearance of a smart, unusually witty and mentally acute fellow. But the more he talks about the 8-track wonderland that fills a separate building behind his Payson home and how he got into collecting 8-tracks in the first place the more you wonder.

"About six years ago, we went to Quartzite where they have that big rock show," Paul said. "When I got there, I had never owned an 8-track tape or an 8-track player in my life. Well, we bought 3,200 of them there. Brand new, never been opened. A guy was selling them for a dollar each or six for five dollars. He didn't want to load them all back in his trailer, so he gave us a real good buy on it. He threw in a player and two speakers, and we paid him $200."

What in the world was Dorris planning on doing with 3,200 8-track tapes? Was he going to listen to them? Sell them? Put them on display in some Museum of Outmoded Technology?

"That's a good question," Dorris said, with a Rodney-Dangerfield air of self-deprecation. "Obviously, I wasn't thinking at all. All I knew was that it was a good buy."

Obviously, Dorris cannot resist a good buy on anything. His home is also crowded with his collections of 4- and 12-track tapes, phonograph records, military medals and lapel pins, matchbooks, Garfield cups, ink bottles, belt buckles and antique cars.

"I've been wanting to collect Ted DeGrazia paintings," he said, "but I haven't been running into them that much. I have maybe six or seven of them."

It's the 8-track collection that is his true source of pride, however. Since purchasing that initial truckload, Dorris has "added a few" to his catalog.

How many?

"Oh, 26,000 or 27,000. When I bought the first ones, I figured, 'Gee, I have so many, I must be a collector now.' I've been adding to it every week. In my opinion, if you're going to do something, you might as well do it all the way."

Dorris' collection runs the gamut of celebrity from Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson to Cedar Walton and Jay Hoggard ... and the gamut of musical stylings from Aerosmith to Lawrence Welk.

Of course, there's no point in collecting 8-track tapes if you don't have an 8-track tape player. Dorris now has about 60 of those.

But don't think for a moment that Dorris is just collecting for the sake of collecting. He actually gets great pleasure listening to many of the titles he's amassed.

"I really think 8-tracks sound better than anything else," he said, with what appears to be sincerity. "And you don't have to fast-forward or rewind them or turn them over or anything. They just keep on playing."

Everything old is new again

Paul Dorris isn't the only American collector who just keeps on playing 8-track tapes. Although the only time the rest of us ever see them is in garage sales and thrift stores, there are format fans known collectively as "trackers" for whom the tapes are still as popular as ever.

And their numbers have been growing ever since the release of the 1997 documentary, "So Wrong They're Right," in which the filmmakers take a 10,000-mile, coast-to-coast journey around the U.S. compiling quirky interviews with the growing underground network of 8-track tape collectors.

Now 8-track players are fetching anywhere from $5 to $150 dollars and higher. And artists from Elvis Presley to Diana Ross to Linda Ronstadt can be found at online auction sites, in addition to 8-track cases and players.

Although the 8-track tape has roots that extend back to some endless-loop movies made in the 1920s, the technology didn't make a huge public splash until electronics-store owner Earl "Madman" Muntz began to manufacture and peddle inexpensive Fidelipac players custom manufactured in Japan, and licensed the music of several record companies for duplication on cartridges. In 1965, just when the Fidelipac looked like it was going to be the next big thing in consumer audio, Bill Lear of Lear Jet fame announced that he had developed a cartridge with eight tracks that promised to lower the price of recorded tapes without any sacrifice in music quality.

The key to Lear's spectacular success was the backing of both the automobile recording industries. RCA Victor committed to the mass production of its catalog on Lear Jet 8-tracks, and Ford agreed to offer the players as optional equipment on 1966 models 65,000 of them.

While cartridges themselves continued to be manufactured in the U.S., makers of 8-track players disappeared after only a few years and their manufacture shifted almost entirely to Japan by 1970. Within 10 years, due primarily to industry improvements in the cassette-tape format, the 8-track was declared obsolete by most of the big American record companies.

In 1988 came the album "Chicago XIX" which holds the distinction of being the very last 8-track cartridge to be shipped by a major U.S. label.

As collectors such as Paul Dorris prove, of course, the format may be largely forgotten, but it's not dead. And it can come to live in your home.

"Paul is thinking of selling the collection, but can't decide on a price," his wife, Bonnie, said. "I think it will depend upon his mood. If somebody makes him an offer, it may be their lucky day ... or his lucky day."

One more note of interest about Paul Dorris.

He doesn't own a single compact disc.

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