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.

Middleton didn't have much money to spare. His only reliable source of income was his Circle K job, and he had a wife and three daughters to support. But he believed in Dunlap so strongly that he sank more than $5,000 into the project. He says he trusted Dunlap with all financial matters, so he paid him directly, and let Dunlap deal with the studio.

"He promised that he was going to pay me back, and that I was part of his financial group, and that we'd stick together," Middleton says. "He said I'd have money coming out of it, because my name was on the label and I would be his partner."

The two men hung out together constantly. Dunlap would invite him to his house, where Dunlap's mother fixed him home-cooked meals of pork chops, rice and mashed potatoes. They'd go out to Scottsdale clubs, where Dunlap would sing and invite Middleton onstage. "We'd knock the crowd down, man," Middleton says.

Mike Williams runs his own sedan service, and says that Dunlap stiffed 
him for $1,200 in rides.
Paolo Vescia
Mike Williams runs his own sedan service, and says that Dunlap stiffed him for $1,200 in rides.
Dunlap, center, in cowboy mode with his country act Boots and Spurs.
Dunlap, center, in cowboy mode with his country act Boots and Spurs.

Suddenly, Dunlap disappeared without saying anything to Middleton. "I couldn't find him," Middleton says. "I'd heard he'd moved to San Diego, but I wasn't sure. And his mother had moved to a different house in Mesa."

Middleton says he waited for Dunlap to call, but he never did. A more assertive person would have been furious, but Middleton took the disappointment with calm resignation.

Don Salter, owner of the Salt Mine, is less charitable about his recording experience with Dunlap. He says Dunlap walked away owing him $800 for studio time, and failed to return at least a dozen calls about it.

"Mike Dunlap is a rat," Salter says. "He'll pay enough to keep you going until he decides it's more cost-effective to burn that bridge."

Talking to Middleton, you get the sense that, even more than the money, what he misses are the possibilities that Dunlap offered -- and then pulled out from under him.

"Mike is the one who inspired me the most," Middleton says. "The big thing that I wanted in my life was to be a performer, and that's what I'm still hoping to do.

"I do feel let down, because I wanted to do something, I wanted to go somewhere in my life. I know I can sing, I know I can perform. I just wanted my Big Brother to be with me."

Legend has it that the Commodores came together in 1969 when the two best bands on the Tuskegee Institute campus decided to stop competing and join forces.

From the beginning, the Commodores were never shy about exposing their ambitions. Group members tended to refer to the band -- with absolute seriousness -- as "the mighty, mighty Commodores," and often told reporters that they intended to influence pop music as much as the Beatles had a decade earlier.

Much as they coveted the Beatles' position in the musical pantheon, the Commodores' polyester-soul sensibility owed much more to the template of Earth, Wind & Fire. EWF had melded smooth pop with horn-driven funk, and wrapped the whole thing in a glossy package, complete with sci-fi pyrotechnics and universal-love homilies.

For much of the '70s, the Commodores were regarded as a poor man's Earth, Wind & Fire: skillful but derivative, pleasant but bland. But a string of ballad hits written by group member Lionel Richie elevated the band to superstardom and paved the way for Richie's multiplatinum solo career. Though the group has not had a hit since 1985, three of its longtime members continue to perform as the Commodores, primarily at hotel conventions and other special events.

There's not much evidence of Michael Dunlap's place in the Commodores' 30-year history. His name doesn't turn up in any of the books devoted to Richie or the band. The group's two-disc anthology on Motown -- released in 1995 -- does not list Dunlap as part of the group's membership. Nor is he listed as part of the Commodores' supplemental live band, called the Mean Machine. Nor is he among the 57 people offered "special thanks."

A Lexis-Nexis newspaper and magazine archive search on the band finds only one article -- a 1983 People magazine album review -- that mentions his name, and even that was a brief reference to a song he'd co-written.

Yet Dunlap, who was born on March 1, 1961, in Massachusetts, insists that he joined the group in his mid-teens and played with them for at least a decade. He tells friends that he grew up on the road, while his mother, Mary, and his brother and sister moved to Arizona.

Like much of Dunlap's biography, his Commodores experience tends to be hard to untangle, because he changes the details, depending on who he's talking to. He's told at least one person that he left the group only four years ago, while telling others that he quit in the late '80s. Some have heard that he was in the group for 14 years, others for 10 years.

The Commodores' current manager, David Fish, has worked with the band since 1980. He characterizes Dunlap as a bit player, someone who submitted a song that the group recorded in 1983 and later filled in on the road, playing bass for about six months in 1986 and 1987.

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