Commodore of Errors

Virtuoso musician Michael Dunlap inspired the show-business dreams of many people. Now, they say he's walked away with their money.

Mark Hites felt like he didn't have a moment to spare last summer.

Hites, a 35-year-old double-duty employee of the adult nightclub Dream Palace, was bombarded with more daily stress than he could handle. His wife, Jennifer, was pregnant, and he fretted about his ability to put food on the table for his growing family. So Hites juggled three jobs and tried to get by on two to three hours of sleep a night. Some nights he didn't sleep at all.

Every afternoon, Hites headed out to Dream Palace, where he worked from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. as a bouncer, an unlikely gig for this bony-assed 6-foot-1, 160-pound man with a disposition so mild he'd be hard-pressed to intimidate a gnat. After his eight-hour shift, he'd scrub toilets and mop floors for the next two hours as the club's janitor.

The best-remembered lineup of the Commodores, in its "Brick House" 
heyday.
The best-remembered lineup of the Commodores, in its "Brick House" heyday.
The best-remembered lineup of the Commodores, in its "Brick House" 
heyday.
The best-remembered lineup of the Commodores, in its "Brick House" heyday.

By 5:30 a.m., when Hites dragged his weary frame into his cramped Scottsdale apartment, he was already getting phone calls from the man who'd given him his third job. This one was different, though. It offered no hourly wage, but it promised something more: show-biz glamour and a big payday in the near future. Hites felt sure that the man on the other end of the phone, Michael Dunlap, was his ticket out of this life of bleary-eyed drudgery.

Michael Dunlap is a fast-talking virtuoso musician who boasts of impressive credentials in the music business. He's a mammoth fellow -- 6-foot-3, 300 pounds -- and a smooth talker who knows how to draw attention to himself.

For the past three years, Dunlap has made the rounds of local karaoke bars and topless clubs. He's become a particularly familiar face to chauffeurs, bouncers and waitresses. They tell stories of Dunlap seeking them out, and asking them to invest money in his forthcoming musical projects. They say that he's assured them that he's on the verge of inking a huge record deal, and if they jump onboard, they can get a sizable percentage of it.

Dunlap told Hites that he'd played for 14 years with the Commodores, the hugely successful R&B band that sold more than 60 million records in the '70s and '80s. He also talked of having produced hit records, and written music for TV shows and high-profile commercials.

Some of Dunlap's claims were far-fetched, even to a musical greenhorn like Hites. Dunlap said he'd been ripped off by the Commodores for several songs that he'd written. He said that he -- not Lionel Richie -- had composed the hit ballad "Three Times a Lady," and even recounted that it had been inspired by a sexual encounter he'd had in an Amsterdam hotel room with three women. He said that he -- not the other members of the Commodores -- had written the funk anthem "Brick House." He said he wrote the song for his mother, because his father had always called her a "brick house."

Hites may have harbored some silent doubts about these tales, but when he tagged along to the recording studio and watched Dunlap in action, he knew this man was on the level. Dunlap could play every imaginable instrument, could conjure a new tune out of thin air, and could coach experienced recording engineers on how to get quirky sound effects. The left-handed Dunlap could even wail on a guitar that was strung upside down. Hites would repeatedly ask him, "Is there anything you can't do?" Dunlap merely responded with a smile.

Dunlap was so prolific that he devised musical projects to cover every demographic and every day of the week. His country act was called Boots and Spurs. His hip-hop incarnation was Commander McBride. His reggae-funk act, his pride and joy, went by the name of Doctor Bombay. In fact, he often introduced himself to strangers as Doctor Bombay. "Always remember," a wide-eyed Hites remembers him saying, "Doctor Bombay pays the bills."

Throughout the summer of 1999, Hites devoted himself unquestioningly to Dunlap. He worked eight to 10 hours a day for the musician, for no pay. When Dunlap called at the crack of dawn to say he needed a ride to some ambiguous business meeting, Hites was only too willing. When Dunlap told Hites to call record-company executives to try to score a contract, the star-struck bouncer didn't hesitate. And when Dunlap asked for nearly $1,000 to finance a demo recording, Hites was glad to help. After all, Dunlap assured him, he says, that they'd soon be looking at a two-album, $500,000 record deal. Hites would be getting 20 percent of the deal, which meant $100,000. "I looked at it as this great Cinderella story," Hites recalls.

According to Hites, Dunlap said he'd be able to pay back the loan within 10 days. Weeks passed and no money came. When Hites asked about it, Dunlap grew increasingly agitated. Hites also started hearing from irate limo drivers whom Dunlap also had reportedly failed to pay. Dunlap apparently told them that Hites was his manager and would pay off all his debts. Hites was stunned.

By mid-August, Hites decided that he wanted out. He asked for his $1,000 back.

"I told him, 'I've got a baby coming and I'm trying to be lenient with this money I've lent you, but I need it back,'" Hites says.

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