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

Commodore of Errors

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.

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.

He says Dunlap responded angrily, saying he'd be at Dream Palace that night with Hites' money, and that would mark the end of their relationship.

Hites says Dunlap didn't show up that night. A few days later, Hites reached Dunlap on the phone, and the musician acted like he'd never met him. Hites was tired and angry.

He told Dunlap that what really infuriated him was that Dunlap was using his musical talent to cheat people. He says that Dunlap warned him to watch his back, because he didn't realize who he was messing with.

Hites isn't the only one who's angry about their business relationship with Dunlap. One local businessman says he blew $2,000 and countless hours of time on Dunlap. One self-employed limo driver says he was stiffed for more than $1,200 in rides, and temporarily lost his apartment. And one local music-biz aspirant says he squandered more than $5,000 on Dunlap.

New Times talked to a half-dozen people who say that they trusted Dunlap. Some gave him hundreds and even thousands of dollars they hoped would provide them entree into the music business.

Dunlap did not respond to New Times' requests for an interview, which included numerous messages on his pager and a business card left at the east Mesa home he shares with his mother. However, New Times did speak with friends of Dunlap, people who continue to believe that he is not only enormously gifted, but also a man of integrity.

To hear Dunlap's ex-manager, Trudy Reynolds, tell it, Dunlap is simply a misunderstood artist.

"In my nine years with Michael, I never knew him to tell a lie, not even a white lie," Reynolds says. "The only thing in the whole world that Michael wants to do is be in the studio and write music. He's like a 9-year-old child. As long as he's in the studio and he's got some instruments and you get him some pizza, he'll write music and be happy."

Most of the people New Times talked to who gave money to Dunlap are hard workers with big dreams. They are blue-collar workers, 35 and up, who are wearing themselves out in multiple dead-end jobs, but cling to fantasies of making it in the entertainment industry. He's inspired and excited these people, then, they say, left them hanging, considerably lighter in the wallet than when he met them. All promises aside, Doctor Bombay has failed to pay anyone's bills.

"He's a con from the word 'go,'" says Hites' hilariously crusty 82-year-old father. "He can put it on with a butter knife, I'll tell you."

Michael Dunlap usually makes a good first impression. People who know him say he's gregarious and confident, with an easy warmth, a knack for making complete strangers feel that they're his best friend. Even people who don't know anything about his résumé rave about the star presence they sense when they meet him.

Three years after the fact, Lymus Middleton still beams when he talks about the night he met Dunlap.

Middleton, 48, works nights as a clerk at the Circle K on 34th Street and Van Buren. All his life, he's dreamed of making it in show business. He says that he sang for years with the local group Stan Devereaux and Spice. He's also managed some film work as an extra, most notably as a crowd member in Rocky, cheering on his second cousin, former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.

A native of Savannah, Georgia, Middleton was raised in Beaufort, South Carolina, just down the street from Frazier. He says that Frazier even helped build his family's house.

Middleton is tall and thin, with processed hair and a Charlie Chan mustache. He's soft-spoken and kind, with an almost old-world politeness about him. During the past year, he's shuffled from place to place, with no consistent home, and the large bags under his eyes suggest that he's often gone without sleep.

Middleton met Dunlap in 1997, on karaoke night at Melody Lounge in Tempe. Middleton got up and sang the Stylistics' 1974 hit "You Make Me Feel Brand New." He can't remember the tune that Dunlap sang, but what's indelibly imprinted on his memory is the stage presence that this huge man had. Dunlap acted like he owned the stage. He didn't just sing a song, he acted out every emotion.

"He sounded so professional," Middleton says. "I had to go over and meet him. He told me he liked my voice. He told me that he sang with the Commodores. After introducing myself, being all nervous and everything, I said, 'Maybe we can do something together someday.'"

Dunlap sounded interested. The two men talked about music for the rest of the night, finally exchanging phone numbers and wishing each other well with a familial embrace. From that point on, Middleton called Dunlap "Big Brother."

They went into the Salt Mine recording studio together, recording nine songs that Dunlap had written. The tracks were earmarked for a variety of projects that Dunlap planned on pitching to record companies. Dunlap sang lead, and Middleton sang back-up.

"It was good stuff," Middleton says. "Everyone always said our voices sounded so sweet together."

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.

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.

"He did his job as a hired musician and he did it well, and that's about it," Fish says. Fish adds that Dunlap may have "come and gone a couple of times," as a road replacement, but that his involvement with the band was brief.

With regard to Dunlap's assertions that he actually wrote some of the Commodores' biggest hits, but was not credited by band members, Fish responds, "He's full of shit. He's just a big talker. He likes to talk, but can he back up any of those claims? I don't think so."

One person who does believe Dunlap is Trudy Reynolds, the Los Angeles-based artist manager who, along with her ex-husband Michael, handled Dunlap's career from 1988 to 1997.

"I know his talent and his style of writing, and when you hear the kinds of songs someone writes, you can identify them," she says.

Music industry trade reports confirm that by the time Reynolds began working with Dunlap, he'd carved out a modest place in the music industry as a producer and writer. He'd co-written and produced three songs for the 1984 debut album by R&B diva Cherrelle. Though none of Dunlap's songs were hits, the album was successful and it contained Cherrelle's signature tune "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On."

Reynolds' years with Dunlap were his most consistently productive. Splitting his time between Los Angeles, Chicago and his mother's home in Mesa, Dunlap found himself working on a regular basis. He wrote music for Michael Landon's TV series Highway to Heaven, scored a gritty urban thriller called Street Wars and cranked out commercial jingles. He even connected with the ascendant hip-hop scene, playing keyboards on a 1992 album by rapper Kid Frost.

In 1997, Reynolds and her husband split up, and Michael Reynolds took over control of Dunlap's career. However, Dunlap quickly had a falling-out with Michael Reynolds, and severed their business relationship, according to Trudy Reynolds.

"What I heard from Michael Dunlap was that he did some work on some demos and was going to be reimbursed by management. But what I heard from my ex-husband is that he didn't get the product in time and it blew the deal. I can see both sides of it."

Whoever was to blame for the blowout between Dunlap and Reynolds, Dunlap apparently referred to the incident when he sought new investors. Mark Hites couldn't understand why a seemingly well-connected musician like Dunlap would want a show-biz novice like himself as a manager.

"I asked him from the git-go, 'Why do you need me? You could pick up the phone and call many a Hollywood agent who would actually know what he's doing.'"

He says Dunlap told him that he'd been screwed by previous management, and he felt less likely to be cheated by someone with no experience in the business.

"That made sense to me. I figured, 'Once burned, twice shy.' And I'm not going to question someone who's offering me a golden opportunity."

Hites' first brush with Dunlap was three years ago. Dunlap was severing his connection with Michael Reynolds and spending more time in the Valley. He was trying to reignite his career.

One of Hites' friends, a driver for the limo company Mercedes Transportation, told Hites that he had Michael Dunlap of the Commodores booked for the next two weeks. Hites didn't recognize Dunlap's name, but he'd always loved the Commodores, so he excitedly asked his friend to get an autograph for him. That night Hites' friend came back with an autographed sheet of paper. Scribbled out was a brief message: "Mark, stay cool."

Two and a half years later, Dunlap showed up at the Dream Palace with an older man. Hites didn't know who he was, but both men were dressed up, so he gave them the VIP treatment.

He says Dunlap asked if anyone famous ever came into the club.

Hites responded, "Yeah, we've had Mike Tyson, Tom Cruise, and a couple of people from the wrestling industry."

Dunlap inquired if there were any others.

Hites thought for a second, and answered that he'd once gotten an autograph from Michael Dunlap of the Commodores.

Hites says Dunlap leaned forward and whispered that he was Michael Dunlap of the Commodores.

Hites was thrilled. The mere mention of the band's name left him star struck. The two men chatted for four hours that night. Hites says Dunlap asked to meet him for lunch the next day, so that they could discuss a possible business venture.

According to Hites, Dunlap said he had big-time offers, but he needed some money to complete his recording work. That's where Hites could fit in. If he could supply some money and business help, he could win the job of Dunlap's manager. If Hites could be his mouthpiece within the industry, he could have 20 percent of anything Dunlap made.

It wasn't long before Hites realized that he wasn't the only prospective manager. Dunlap had him competing against various other people, including a local businessman and a 57-year-old cocktail waitress named Tiffany Pylé, who worked at the adult nightclub Tiffany's. Hites says Dunlap used this competition to spur him on, telling him that he needed to work harder and invest more money if he really wanted the job.

"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.

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."

Lee says Dunlap paid him the first 10 times or so that he gave him a ride. But Lee says he started to become disturbed by the people Dunlap was hanging out with, whom Lee characterizes as "crack whores."

"He was really into that," Lee says. "He'd say, 'I have some friends I have to look up,' and he'd ask me to take him to Van Buren."

Dunlap told Lee about his exploits with the Commodores, and suggested that Lee become his road manager, an offer that the driver politely brushed off. But Lee says Dunlap soon stopped paying him for the rides. Lee found this particularly unsettling because he saw the extravagant way that Dunlap would blow money in the topless bars.

Lee says Dunlap tried to schmooze him by inviting him into the topless bars. He estimates that Dunlap would sometimes spend about $300 a night at various club stops, and often got more than 10 lap dances at one club.

"He'd be blowing hundreds of dollars on lap dances," Lee says. "One time, he even borrowed $100 from me. He said he'd pay me back the next day. It took him about three weeks to pay me back, and even then I had to sort of con him into doing it.

"From that point on, I knew he was playing some sort of a con game. He said he was going to do commercials for this strip bar or that strip bar, and nothing came to fruition. He said he would introduce me to the owner of a certain bar, and when I took him up on it, he'd always put me off. That's when I knew he was bullshitting me."

Lee, who's married, says Dunlap even tried to set him up with his mother. Similarly, Hites says Dunlap suggested to him that Hites' father and Dunlap's mother get together for lunch.

When Dunlap's debt reached $350, Lee told him he couldn't afford to give him rides anymore. Dunlap stopped calling him.

Dunlap moved on to another driver: Mike Williams, known to his friends as "Big Mike," because of his skyscraping frame.

Dunlap told Williams that he'd dropped Lee because Lee had kept his CD master, an allegation that Lee says is preposterous.

Williams, 42, runs his own sedan service, Williams Executive Transportation. When he met Dunlap, they verbally agreed that Williams would be his exclusive driver, Williams says. He says he drove Dunlap anywhere he wanted to go. He even slept at Dunlap's house when Dunlap needed to get up early and didn't want to wait for Williams to come by.

But it didn't take long before Dunlap stopped paying him. "He promised me that this record thing was about to break and as soon as Warner Bros. or one of these other big labels signs him, everyone will be living good," Williams says. "You know the song and dance."

Dunlap often told his associates that he'd hidden his money in a Swiss bank account for tax reasons. But he did have royalty money coming in that should have allowed him to pay at least some of his recording and chauffeur debts. A quarterly report from BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) in August 1997 shows that, over the previous three months, Dunlap earned $4,683 for the 79 songs that he has registered with BMI. While royalty figures fluctuate over time (depending on record sales, radio airplay, video rentals or TV syndication), this amount is a fairly accurate gauge of Dunlap's royalty income, and it translates to nearly $19,000 a year.

But like Lee, Williams says he saw Dunlap blow his -- and other people's -- money with maximum urgency. "I saw him buy rock cocaine right in front of me," Williams says. "The guy came up to him right on the street and they transacted the deal right there, and then he got back in the car. That's just one of his problems. He also smokes a lot of marijuana."

"He was definitely using drugs," Lee agrees. "I'd call him at times and he'd be completely out of it, where he didn't know what he was doing. I'd drop him off at some of the sleaziest motels on Van Buren. I'd pick him up and there'd be a different girl with him than the one he went in with."

As Dunlap's chauffeur debt reached $1,200, Williams began asking when he was going to get paid.

"He'd say, 'I don't have any money,'" Williams says. "He always put you off. Then he got mad one day and told me, 'I'm trying to concentrate so I can get this thing done and you're constantly bugging me about money. I'm tired of hearing about money.'"

Williams couldn't believe Dunlap's cavalier attitude. "I have three children and I have bills to pay, and I'm jeopardizing my family's well-being on a promise from this guy and, not only that, but he didn't seem to care."

As he had done with Lee, Dunlap stopped calling Williams. Hites asked Dunlap why Williams wasn't driving him anymore. He says Dunlap told him that Williams had caused him to miss a meeting with David Bowie's manager.

Meanwhile, money got so tight for Williams that he temporarily lost his apartment and his phone. Although his finances are now on the upswing, he remains bitter toward Dunlap.

"I like his mother and I wouldn't disrespect her by going over there and starting anything," he says. "But if I caught [Dunlap] in the street, he would get some Slim-Fast.

"If it wasn't for her, I would have had part of his big ass on my wall as one of them trophies, like one of them moose heads."

Dunlap apparently takes a two-pronged approach to his investment-seeking. On the one hand, he appears to seek out people like Hites and Pylé to help him finance a demo that will get him a recording contract and presumably make everyone rich.

But he's also apparently spent the past few years searching for aspiring singers who will pay him $5,000 to produce a demo for them, which will presumably help them get a record deal. He passes out "production agreements" to singers in bars that call for them to invest $5,000. Under the agreement, he says he will repay them $7,500 -- a 150 percent return -- within three months.

To that end, he's sought the help of Ron West, an affable 44-year-old security guard at Chandler-Gilbert Community College who also works nights as a bouncer at Mesquite Lounge, a bar in north central Phoenix. At 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, the muscle-bound West is an imposing physical specimen. He also clearly believes in Dunlap.

West does Dunlap's legwork for him, going to bars and trying to find talented singers whom Dunlap can record. West sees it as part of a strategy to put the Valley firmly on the music industry's radar screen.

"We didn't want to go to California or New York to do everything there," West says. "With his name and his talent, why couldn't we build a mecca here, where people will want to come to Arizona?"

West says he's invested considerable money in Dunlap's ventures over the past eight years, with no return. But he insists that his faith hasn't wavered. He remains convinced that when Dunlap eventually lands a record deal, he'll get his money back.

Hites says he briefly helped Dunlap in his search for vocal talent. He says Dunlap called him one night, telling him to meet him at Valle Luna, a restaurant/bar in Ahwatukee. Hites raced from work to the bar, and Dunlap introduced him to an aspiring Latino singer. But Hites says he was surprised when Dunlap referred to him as "my manager from California," and added "he drove a long way to hear you."

Hites says he was especially disgusted by the brazen way in which Dunlap buttered up the singer, telling him he'd be the next Ricky Martin -- that he was better looking and he wasn't gay.

Tiffany Pylé, who met Dunlap last year during her night shift at Tiffany's, has heard all these stories, but they haven't affected her feelings about Dunlap. One reason for this may be that her investment is relatively small ($100, she says), but it also has something to do with her past music-biz travails.

She says she was forced to declare bankruptcy when her then-husband, a crooner in the Steve Lawrence mold, overstepped his financial bounds. She sees in Dunlap someone who, like her ex-husband, may be inept at business but is not a malicious con artist.

Pylé also says she went to high school with Phil Spector, and she compares Dunlap favorably with the legendary producer.

"This guy is a mega-talent," she says. "He was a child prodigy. He has so many different singing sounds that it took me about a week to figure out that two recordings he'd done under different names were the same person. I think he's a delightful person. He's up, he's perky, he's bright, he's intelligent. Anyone who takes you to meet his mother can't be out to do you in."

After more than two years without hearing a word, Lymus Middleton didn't know if he'd ever run into Michael Dunlap again. Then, with no warning, Dunlap showed up at Circle K two months ago on Thanksgiving weekend. Dunlap offered no apologies for stiffing Middleton nearly three years earlier. He acted as though he'd caused no damage in Middleton's life. It was the same way most of his other associates say he'd treated them.

For his part, Middleton was just happy to see Dunlap again. The musician's mere presence rekindled Middleton's hope that he could break out of his dead-end life and realize his dreams of performing.

"He invited me to hear some more music that he'd cut," Middleton says. "Some reggae music. He had me listen to it while he was parked out front in a Lincoln Towncar. I listened to it and I thought it was great."

He says Dunlap turned to him and asked if he'd like to go in the studio again and record some tracks. Middleton said yes.

He also asked Dunlap for a favor. His wife left him last year and he's relied on friends for temporary lodging. "I kind of need a place to stay," he said. "Could you help me out?" He says Dunlap assured him it would be no problem.

Dunlap told Middleton he was staying in Mesa. He wrote down his phone number and gave it to Middleton. He told Middleton to give him a call.

Middleton says he dialed the number the next day. There was no answer. He dialed again and again. Still no answer. He never heard from Dunlap again. Once again, Big Brother had let him down.


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