The Never Before Documented History of The Drunk Unkles

The Drunk Unkles originated out of an after work jam by a number of Shen Milsom & Wilke (SM&W) staffers in 1999, or thereabouts. Looking for a consistent group of available people caused me to look outside of the core SM&W group. Wanting to keep the focus on the industry, the band has evolved over the years, and currently consists of industry vets: John Cardone (Cardone Solomon Associates), Steve Emspak (Shen Milsom & Wilke), Marc Hochlerin (Cerami & Associates), Mike Phillips (Hudson Marketing), Felix Robinson (AVI/SPL) and added vocalist Lisa Wenger (formerly of Bosch Communication Systems).

Suffice to say, it was an interesting mix of guys. From Felix Robinson having the most musical experience touring and recording with 80’s rock group, Angel to Marc Hochlerin’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, Steve Emspak, with no stage experience whatsoever – well, aside from sitting quietly at home writing music. It’s certainly an eclectic mix! Our first gig together (and my first venture on stage), then known as the Steve Emspak Blues Band, was a benefit for the untimely passing of Cliff Govier who had once been an employee of SM&W. Not to mention, Cliff was a fellow musician that was leaving behind two young children, which for me, made the benefit concert all the more relevant.

Cliff’s Jam, as it became known, focused on raising money to assist Cliff’s wife and their two 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. Cliff’s Jam brought in over 600 supporters from all over the country including 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 – it was a legendary evening – well, it was legendary from our point of view.

The night was supported by an impressive musical compilation: Jimmy Vivvino and G.E. Smith of late night TV fame; the entire band from Billy Joel’s Broadway show, Movin’ Out; Louie Appell, an amazing drummer and good friend of Marc’s who was instrumental in helping recruit the previously mentioned; 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!). Overall, we raised a total of $65,000, which after expenses; we happily contributed $47,000 to Cliff’s family.

Needless to say, we were more than energized by the result, and we had a great time doing it! As time passed the band matured (just a little), and at my insistence the group changed the name almost immediately to, “The Drunk Unkles” (I’m fairly certain that came from Felix). 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 certainly weren’t earning us any money – as a matter of fact, there is no question that it would cost us to perform – at times a considerable amount. Between the costs associated with rehearsal spaces, parking, and of course some ridiculous bar bills, it was a losing venture for sure (and still is), but we sure had a good time doing it!

One of those first gigs we played, in October 2005, was the Drunk Unkles Pre-AES show. As it happened, Chuck Wilson and Norah Hammond from the National Systems Contractors Association (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 they should stop by. The odds proved in our favor as both Chuck and Norah knew a fair number of attendees. It took about two seconds for Chuck to make up his mind, and low and behold, only a few hours later Chuck, along with a packed house at The Cutting Room, was there cheering us on! After the show Chuck approached me and asked if we would be interested in performing at the NSCA show the following spring in Las Vegas. Little did we know that Chuck had an interest in becoming a concert promoter, and we were more than happy to give him that opportunity. After a series of discussions, Chuck moved forward the idea of holding a party for NSCA members and tying it to industry education – something that the band was heavily in favor of.

Using the The Beach as the Las Vegas venue was no easy decision. We talked about the location for hours upon hours (and have every year since), and felt that we were a ‘bar band.’ We felt at home at The Beach with the smell of stale beer and sticky floors coated in spilled drinks. We were very adamant, to the point of annoyance, 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 there were more people involved. We had Chuck, two AV consultants, two sales reps and a systems integrator trying to agree on whose speakers, amplifiers, mixers etc. to use – as well as who would mix FOH, monitors and on and on. In the end it was a fairly simple decision – after all, Chuck carried the checkbook!

After the months of planning and ironing out the details, the first NSCA gig was a success and we were self-proclaimed industry celebrities! I recall about 800 attendees – not bad if you ask me – and we raised nearly $45,000, which ultimately found its way to the NSCA Education Fund. Much to my surprise, Chuck reached out and asked if we would perform for NSCA, in Orlando the following year. Of course, we said yes and have been performing for NSCA ever since. Over the years we have raised over $250,000 and have brought in thousands of people – with our latest performance bringing in over 1,250 guests!

Aside from the fact that Chuck has reached the pinnacle of his concert promoting career, we are more than pleased with the support we have received from our friends in the industry, the new ones we’ve met and the old ones we have reunited with. We continue to look forward to that call from Chuck, “Hey, we need to get going on plans for next year!” You know where to find us – we’ll be at the bar with the sticky floors and the scent of stale beer.

Needless to say, we continue to look forward to calling on our friends, and asking in our own special way to get out their checkbooks and feed the lifeblood of our industry – education.

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