SRC performs at the Midwest Rock Festival, a three-day event at Wisconsin State Fair Park July 25-27, 1969. (Photo courtesy Dean Chapman)

Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Chris Foran • July 26, 2019

Three weeks before Woodstock in 1969, Milwaukee had a rock festival with Zeppelin, Clapton and lots of rain. Here’s how it happened.

Fifty years ago this weekend, some of the biggest names in rock—then and since—gathered at Wisconsin State Fair Park for a three-day music festival.

And it was three full weeks before a little thing called Woodstock.

Held July 25 to 27, 1969, the Midwest Rock Festival had a lineup almost as star-studded as that jammed-to-capacity event in upstate New York. Among those playing State Fair Park that weekend were rock gods Led Zeppelin; Blind Faith, the short-lived English supergroup including Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood; guitar hero Johnny Winter; the First Edition with Kenny Rogers; folk star Buffy Sainte-Marie; SRC; Pacific Gas & Electric; and the Bob Seger System.

And like Woodstock, the Midwest Rock Festival had to deal with gatecrashers, rainstorms, recalcitrant performers and a young promoter scrambling to keep it all together.

“I’d never done anything in the music business before,” said Peter Knapp, then the 22-year-old president of Midwest Festivals Inc., which staged the 1969 event.

Knapp, now 72, said Milwaukee’s Woodstock had its genesis in his desire to see the real thing.
At the time, he was running a leasing business for a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Milwaukee. When he told his boss he wanted to take a few days off in August 1969 to see this big music festival, Knapp said, his boss saw a business opportunity.

“He wrote me a check for $10,000 to get started,” Knapp said.

Looking for a venue, Knapp contacted State Fair Park, which said it had only one weekend available: July 25-27. “It was June 28th,” Knapp noted.

‘The Three Stooges putting on a rock concert’

The next day, he set out to find some bands. He started by looking in his record collection.

Knapp’s favorite performer was singer Joe Cocker, so he got the name of Cocker’s label. The label steered him to Cocker’s manager; the manager hooked Knapp up with 10 acts, saying, if he could get them advances and signed contracts within 10 days, the performers would be there.

The problem was, the promoters didn’t have the money for the advances, about $30,000. So they got signed contracts and paid off the performers with proceeds of advance ticket sales, as the money came in.

Despite the haphazard approach — “it was like the Three Stooges putting on a rock concert,” Knapp recalled — the lineup came together quickly.

The biggest gets were Led Zeppelin, the Friday night headliner, about to record its second album; Blind Faith, Saturday’s headliner, playing one of the band’s first shows; and Sunday’s guitar-god lineup with headliners Jeff Beck and Johnny Winter, along with Cocker. (Cocker, Winter and the band Sweetwater would later perform at Woodstock, too.)

Sweetwater, a rock band that also performed at Woodstock later that summer, takes the stage on July 25, 1969. (Photo courtesy Dean Chapman)

The other scheduled performers were no slouches either: Sainte-Marie was one of folk’s leading lights; Detroit’s MC5 was one of the country’s hardest-rocking bands; Rogers and the First Edition were a little more than a year past their big hit, Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In); Zephyr, whose lead guitarist, Tommy Bolin, went on to play in the James Gang and Deep Purple; pop-folk stars Delaney & Bonnie; blues giant John Mayall; and more, including a number of local performers.

Counterfeit tickets and lots of rain

Not that Knapp saw much of it.

“The whole thing was a blur to me,” he said. “Of all the bands playing, I probably only saw … parts of three sets.”

There was plenty of other stuff to keep him busy — like counterfeit tickets.

Knapp said they sold 12,000 three-day advance tickets for the festival, at $15 a head. (Single-day advance tickets cost $6.) But part of the reported attendance of about 41,000 got inside with fake tickets. The originals, it seems, were printed without any security markings.

“I guess they figured that hippies didn’t know about Xerox machines,” Knapp said. “They were wrong.”

And, like at Woodstock three weeks later, there was the weather.

Saturday afternoon, downpours sent performers scrambling, but headliner Blind Faith managed to get in its much-anticipated set.

When the skies opened up again Sunday, festival organizers consolidated the grounds’ two stages into one. Two of that day’s biggest acts, Jeff Beck and Jethro Tull, never performed, Knapp said; the Milwaukee Sentinel reported that MC5, the Jim Schwall Blues Period and the SRC also didn’t play Sunday.

Despite the rain and the ticket issues, everyone seemed to have a good time.Bootleg recordings of Led Zeppelin and Blind Faith’s performances posted on YouTube rate high among the bands’ fans.

“As an attendee, I almost felt I’d been baptized in the counterculture,” said Dean Chapman, who was 14 when he went to the festival at State Fair Park with his friend, Howie Epstein. (Epstein, who died in 2003 at age 47, went on to become a musician, best remembered as a bassist with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.)

“ … It left a gigantic impression on me,” said Chapman, now 64 and an equipment dealer in South Milwaukee.

Richard Ziervogel, historian at State Fair Park, was a member of the State Fair Park police in 1969. He said there were no “major incidents,” just a few drug-related arrests and a couple of drug overdoses, none of them fatal.

“It went really smooth,” Ziervogel recalled.

“I think that everybody was surprised that it was happening at all … ,” Knapp said. “I was as shocked as anyone.”

A turning point in my life’

Unfortunately, the festival lost money, and so did a second concert, Midwest Rock Festival — Phase II, a blues-centric concert at County Stadium with Chuck Berry, Taj Mahal and Howlin’ Wolf, among others.Although Knapp told reporters that he thought it would repeat in 1970, it didn’t.

But the experience changed Knapp’s life.

Not long after, he left Milwaukee and went on to be a tour manager for 12 years, for such artists as Cocker (a lifelong friend until the singer’s death in 2014), the Who, The Band and more.

Knapp left the music business in the early 1980s and opened a “rock ‘n’ roll sushi restaurant” in Venice Beach, Calif. He and his wife, novelist Lesley Kagen, came back to Milwaukee to raise their children and opened Restaurant Hama in Bayside.

Seven years ago, Knapp moved to Colorado, where he’s now the chef and owner of PJ’s Neighborhood Pub in Hotchkiss, a town of about 900 people in western Colorado.

The Midwest Rock Festival “was a turning point in my life,” Knapp said. “It gave me the confidence to do whatever I wanted to do.”