The Never-Before-Documented History of the Drunk Unkles

DrunkUnklesLogo-0612The Drunk Unkles originated out of an after-work jam by a number of ShenMilsom & Wilke (SM&W) staffers in 1999 or thereabouts. Looking for a consistent group of available people caused me to look outside of the SM&W core group. Wanting to maintain the focus on the industry, the band, over a period of years evolved to what is now, John Cardone (Cardone Solomon Associates), me — SteveEmspak (Shen Milsom & Wilke), Marc Hochlerin (Cerami & Associates), Mike Phillips (Hudson Marketing), and Felix Robinson (AVI/SPL), who are the current members to date.

Suffice to say, it was an interesting mix of guys. From Felix Robinson having the most musical experience touring and recording with ‘Angel’ in the ‘80’s, to MarcHochlerin’s experience touring with Mazarin for many years, then of course, John Cardone and Mike Phillips playing in local bands for umpteen years – and me, with no stage experience what so ever, but sitting quietly at home writing music on occasion.  Certainly an eclectic mix!!

Our first gig together — then known as the Steve Emspak Blues Band (believe me, not my idea!!) — and my first venture on stage was a benefit that we helped organize for Cliff Govier after his untimely passing. Cliff was once an employee of SM&W, prior to his passing, so it hit close to home. He was also a fellow musician that was leaving behind two young children, which for me, made it all the more important.

Cliff’s Jam, as it became known, was a fundraiser focused on raising monies to assist Cliff’s wife and the nurturing of their two very young children. We reached out to local and national friends within the industry to provide the necessary capitalization that would allow us to rent a facility in midtown Manhattan, and stage what became somewhat legendary in the northeast — at least in my view.  Bringing together over 600 people from as far away as Atlanta and Boston, and supported by numerous manufactures, sales reps, systems integrators and friends, on a damp and chilly November evening, just prior to the Thanksgiving Holiday in 2003, the Steve Emspak Blues Band took the stage.

Supported by an impressive musical compilation: Jimmy Vivvino and GE Smith of late night TV fame, the entire band from Billy Joel’s Broadway show Movin’ Out, the late Louie Appell (an amazing drummer and good friend of Marc’s who was instrumental in helping to recruit all those mentioned previously), The Knockout Drops (Tom Licamelli from CMS), along with a number of other industry musicians (to include a closing jam of over 30 guitar players on stage at the same time!), we raised a total of $65,000 that, after expenses, we happily contributed ($47,000) to Cliff’s family.

Needless to say, we were more than energized by the result, and along the way we had a good time doing it!

As time passed the band matured (just a little), and at my insistence, changed the name almost immediately to, “The Drunk Unkles” (I’m fairly certain that came from Felix), and the Yokel was born. About the same time, we realized that having a female vocalist join us would be beneficial (good marketing?), at which point Aunt Mimi joined the band. Upon her departure about three years ago, we were joined by Lisa Wenger (Bosch), a terrific voice and personality to say the least!

We began performing at various venues in and around New York City, building a mailing list of friends that were primarily in the AV Community. Those gigs were certainly not earning us any money; as a matter of fact, there is no question that it would cost us – at times a considerable amount – to perform. Between the costs associated with rehearsal space, parking, and of course what at times were ridiculous bar bills, it was a losing proposition for sure (and still is!!) – but we sure were having a good time doing it.

One of those gigs we played, in October 2005, was what we called the Drunk Unkles Pre-AES show. As it happened Chuck Wilson and Norah Hammond from the NSCA were in my office the day of the gig discussing various aspects of the NSCA. In the course of conversation I mentioned to them that the band was playing that night, and there might be a good crowd and maybe they should stop by.  The odds proved in our favor and they would know a fair number of attendees. It took about two seconds for Mr. Wilson to make up his mind, and low and behold, a few hours later Chuck, along with a packed house at The Cutting Room, was cheering us on!!

My recollection was that as we were packing up that night Chuck approached me and asked if we would be interested in doing something at the NSCA show, coming up in early spring — Las Vegas 2006. Exactly what that would be was unknown, but we would figure it out over the next few months.

Little did we know at the time that Chuck really wanted to be a Rock Concert Promoter and we were giving him that opportunity. Here is a guy that spent years in and around the audio industry and loved every second of it, to say the least.

After a series of discussions, Chuck moved forward the idea of giving back to the NSCA members a party, and tying it to Education — something that the band as a group was heavily in favor of, something that nobody in our industry would or could ever argue didn’t make sense.

We were off to the races, so to speak — though really we were off to “The Beach”, a somewhat oddity, only to be found in the Las Vegas nightclub directly across from the Las Vegas Convention Center, which was torn down the following year (you will see this became a minor trend over time).

Using the “The Beach” as a venue was no casual decision. We talked about the location for hours upon hours (as we have every year since), as the band felt we were a Bar Band. If you can’t smell stale beer and your feet don’t stick to the floor, we are in the wrong place. No hotel ballrooms with stage risers and drapes for The Drunk Unkles! We were very insistent to the point of annoyance and adamant that any venue had to be the right venue or the vibe would be wrong. Deciding on the venue only was the tip of the iceberg. Now we have Chuck, two AV consultants, two sales reps and a systems integrator trying to agree on whose speakers, amplifiers, mixers etc – as well as who would mix FOH, Monitors etc. Of course in the end it was a fairly simple decision – it was Chuck’s since he had the checkbook!!

We had quite a night at that first NSCA gig. I recall something on the order of 800 attendees – not a bad kick-off, raising around $45,000 which ultimately (after expenses) found its way to the NSCA Education Foundation. We were now Industry Celebrities (at least in our own minds!).

Much to my amazement, Chuck almost immediately reached out, asking if we would once again perform at NSCA, in Orlando. Well, of course we did, as well as, the following years, and of course the same conversations as to whose mixers, amplifiers, speakers etc, we’d use followed. But along the way we understood raising monies for this cause was most important.

At this point in time the Drunk Unkles have raised over $500,000, of which all the monies raised have been donated to the NSCA Education Foundation with the exception of two events — Cliff’s Jam as previously mentioned and a memorial to NYPD Inspector Anthony Tria, a client of SM&W’s that passed away leaving two children.

Beyond the fact that Chuck has probably approached the pinnacle of his Concert Promoting career, we are more than pleased at the support we have received from our friends in the industry, the new ones we have met and the old ones we have reunited with.

We were happy to go on for our seventh year, taking the stage as a ‘Thank You’ to our friends and colleagues. With the comforting knowledge that we raised over $90,000 this year — oddly we are again looking forward to that call from Chuck saying, “Hey, we need to get going on plans for next year!” Here we go again — what venue with a sticky floor and stale beer etc. will we pick next year… Maybe we will grow this thing and take that open Wednesday evening slot.