Andy Kim belts out a song at the third M’WOKY Pops Festival at County Stadium on June 13, 1971. Kim also performed at the WOKY-sponsored festivals in 1969 and 1970. (Photo Credit: Journal Sentinel files)

Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Chris Foran • Monday, July 2, 2018

For decades, Summerfest has been the Big Gig. But in its first years, it had some pretty serious competition, including two Milwaukee music festivals that packed a sizable booking punch.

Three weeks before Woodstock — and on the final weekend of the second-ever Summerfest — some of the biggest names in rock converged on State Fair Park for the Midwest Rock Festival, three days of peace and music in West Allis July 25 to 27, 1969.

Scheduled headliners included Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith (with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Steve Winwood), Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, John Mayall, MC5, Jeff Beck, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, Jethro Tull and The Bob Seger System. Some regional acts, including former Milwaukee-based band The Shag, were scheduled to play all three days of the festival.

More than 10,000 people attended the first day’s show, including as many as 2,000 with counterfeit tickets, the Sentinel’s Dean Jensen reported in a story in the July 26, 1969 paper.

“Even as they watched the U-Haul trucks being unloaded of the amps and fuzz boxes that elasticize, pulverize and most of all amplify the lollipop guitars, the crowd seemed incredulous that Milwaukee was (hosting) a major rock festival,” Jensen wrote. “After all, it was only a week ago that the National Polka Festival was held here.”

Covering the show for The Journal, Pierre-Rene Noth reported that “the affluent bohemians who paid $5, $6 and $7 per head turned on and tuned in to the ‘heavy’ and ‘message’ sounds.”

Neither paper reviewed Led Zeppelin’s performance, but there’s a purported bootleg recording of it on YouTube.

Saturday’s performers, including Blind Faith, played in thundershowers; Sunday’s driving rain forced promoters to cancel seven of the day’s 10 featured performances, including Jeff Beck and Jethro Tull. Not that the concertgoers seemed to mind, the Sentinel reported on July 28, 1969. Despite the rain, attendance for the two days was estimated at more than 25,000.

“The harder the rain fell, … the closer Milwaukee’s hip community moved toward its ideal — brotherhood and peace,” the Sentinel wrote.

Not everyone saw it that way. Robert T. Huber, a Democratic Assemblyman from West Allis, said the behavior at the festival “would have made Haight-Ashbury blush,” according to a story in the July 28, 1969 Journal.

Huber, who said the “goings-on at the tents on the grounds almost bordered on a semi-orgy situation,” accused State Fair Park officials of trying to trash the park as part of a bid to relocate the fairgrounds — a topic of discussion at the time.

State Fair officials defended the festival, but when the promoters staged Phase II of the rock festival on Aug. 30, 1969, it was at County Stadium, not the fair.

Phase II was headlined by Chuck Berry, who the Sentinel reported on Sept. 1, 1969, delayed his performance for an hour until he was paid in advance. The Journal’s Dominique-Paul Noth reported on Aug. 31 that the estimated attendance of 4,000 “seemed high.”

M’WOKY Pops Festival

Two months before the Midwest Rock Festival, WOKY-AM, one of Milwaukee’s top Top 40 stations, sponsored the first M’WOKY Pops Festival. And like the rock festival, it boasted a pretty impressive lineup.

On the bill for the concert, set for June 22, 1969, at County Stadium, were, among others, The Monkees, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Andy Kim, Stevie Wonder and The Guess Who.

Jensen reported June 23, 1969, that WOKY Vice President and General Manager Ralph Barnes reported the attendance for the four-hour concert was 29,041 — not bad for a drizzly afternoon. Proceeds went to the Children’s Outing Association.

“Mother Nature revealed a satanic sense of humor during the show,” Jensen wrote. “As the Bar-Kays were singing Aquarius, and beseeching over and over Let the Sun Shine,” a soft drizzle grew into a downpour.

The 1970 edition of the M’WOKY Pops Festival drew about 20,000 to County Stadium, Jensen reported in a June 15, 1970 story, for a bill including teen idol Tommy Roe, The Supremes (minus Diana Ross), The Ides of March and Frankie Avalon — for whom, Jensen wrote, “the girls swooned and screamed as much as they did 15 years ago when he started making his first big hits.”

Attendance for the third edition of the WOKY-sponsored festival, held June 13, 1971, again at County Stadium, was about 14,000. Like its predecessors, it had an eclectic lineup, including Sugarloaf; Bread; Honey Cone; Hamilton, Joe, Frank & Reynolds; Lobo; Rare Earth; and Andy Kim — who, despite being at all three M’WOKY Pops Festivals, was the day’s biggest hit, according to The Journal’s Neil D. Rosenberg.

“Except for the appearance of the undulating, jump-suited Kim, the audience for the most part was almost placid,” Rosenberg wrote in his story in the June 14, 1971 Journal. A police officer described the crowd as “pretty well behaved.”