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.

"I killed myself trying to get him money, trying to make sure I got him to every appointment," Hites says. "But these appointments were with nobodies.

"I took him to a place in Tempe called Rasta Tings, and he told me he met Ziggy Marley's manager in there, but yet he made me stay in the car. And he used the excuse that I wasn't dressed up enough, because I'd just gotten off work at the club."

One of Dunlap's potential managers was a 39-year-old African-American businessman who spoke to New Times on the condition of anonymity. The businessman, a Memphis native, has sung semiprofessionally for years, and has been attempting to get his foot in the music industry door as a manager.

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

Last February, the businessman says, he got a call from Dunlap's friend Ron West, a bouncer and security guard who's moonlighted for the past several years as a talent scout for Dunlap.

"Dunlap and I hooked up, and he talked about some of the things he was doing," the businessman says. "I asked, 'Why me?' and he said that Ron told him I was a good person and that he knew he could trust me. He said he was having problems with BMI, problems getting paid on his royalties.

"He said he had millions of dollars in escrow, and that he had lawsuits hung up against Lionel Richie. He said he was with the Commodores for many years, and after 'Nightshift,' in 1985, he left because they weren't giving him his proper respect."

The businessman was leery of working with Dunlap. He found the musician's stories loaded with inconsistencies. If Dunlap had all the money and houses that he claimed, why was he bunking in a makeshift bedroom at his mom's small frame house? Why was he perpetually broke? And if he had all the contacts he said he did, why couldn't he make things happen for himself?

But the businessman got involved with Dunlap anyway. He knew Dunlap was talented and he thought he could bring stability to his confused career.

"We started having meetings that were turning into get-togethers, just fellows hanging out together," the businessman says. "And there was always the request for money. 'I've got this project coming up, we've got to get this done. I've talked to a local bottling company, but we need some money to record.' I was pulling $200, $300, $400 out of my pocket. It eventually turned into $2,000."

Meanwhile, the businessman started getting calls from people who were disgruntled with Dunlap. "I'd also run into people who'd say, 'You know that dude? He's strung out.' And there were times that we were together and his behavior was out there. Just bugging. He'd be shaking his head, not saying anything."

The businessman noticed a pattern to Dunlap's business relationships. He'd often go out with Dunlap to karaoke nights at places like Chuy's and Ernie's, and he says Dunlap always took his portfolio with him.

"He'd impress people with a portfolio and with the Commodores name and bring them into the project," the businessman says. "He'd tell me to call so-and-so, saying that they'd be good for the project. I was wondering where all these people were coming from. It turned out that all these names were coming up because they were providing money, and somehow he'd figure out a way to piss them off. He'd say, 'I'm not going to work with them anymore.' They'd call and want their money back."

Despite his massive misgivings, the businessman continued to work with Dunlap. But he wanted to have a contract. They would have a solid business framework. It would be a management team composed of the businessman, Mark Hites and waitress Tiffany Pylé. The terms of the contract were not that important. Dunlap could make any revisions he wanted. What was important was that they have an agreement in writing.

Weeks passed and, the businessman says, Dunlap wouldn't return his phone calls. Meanwhile, Dunlap griped to Hites that the businessman was trying to take control of his music, so he'd ripped up the contract, according to Hites. The businessman decided to cut his losses and end his relationship with Dunlap.

"There were red flags all over the place," the businessman says. "But when you think you have an opportunity to work with someone who has that kind of background -- supposedly -- you have a tendency to compromise. And I think that's what a lot of people would do under similar circumstances. And he plays on that."

Henry Lee met Michael Dunlap last July outside of Tiffany's.

The 49-year-old Lee, a Chicago native, had spent 23 years as a cook at Chinese restaurants. He'd gotten burned out with the food industry, and a year ago decided to move to Phoenix and become a chauffeur. He was driving sedans for Legacy, a limousine company. One night, while he was waiting outside Tiffany's, Dunlap came out of the club and asked for a ride.

"I picked him up and took him to a couple of other strip places," Lee says. "He frequents a lot of those bars. I offered my services, where if he needed a ride he could call me. So he started calling me."

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