Randy Fare can still recall the moment when he and his band, The Wrest, opened for Sly and The Family Stone at Summerfest in 1970. With an estimated 120,000 people in attendance, it still stands as the largest rock concert in Wisconsin history.
Small matter that Sly and his band were five hours late for their performance at the muddy Summerfest grounds. For The Wrest, the local band with roots firmly planted in the South Shore, this was their biggest moment as live performers.
"We played for a lot of famous acts like The Guess Who, New Colony 6, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap," recalled Fare, 57, a South Milwaukee resident and the drummer for the nostalgia band. "This was when the stage was at the base of the War Memorial and faced out toward the lakefront. All I can remember was looking out and seeing all of those people. It was a wonderful experience, and we had a lot of fun."
Fare and his band are still going strong after 40 years. And, on July 8, they'll once again play Summerfest.
The Wrest performs classic rock standards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, blending four- and five-part harmonies and performing covers of classics by such bands as The Beatles, The Turtles, The Association and The Beach Boys. As its musical signature, the band plays the entire track from Abbey Road at the end of its concerts.
Bay View origins
The Wrest got started in the mid-1960s at Bay View High School, back when Catholic Youth Organization and YMCA dances on Friday nights were all the rage. Three of the band members came from Bay View, while the other two came from Custer High School and Boys Technology and Trade School. All were musically proficient and played an instrument in school.
"There were bands in every other house who played in the garage," Fare said. "Bay View was rich with lots of good bands. The Sturmers lived there, Daryl and Duane, and there was The Coachmen and the Wayward Set.
"We just all had a love of music, and some of the band mates were in chorus. We just kept practicing in the garage, getting better and better, playing CYO dances and YMCA dances."
It was then that Fare met his future wife, Dorothy, who described herself as the band's biggest groupie.
"It was so much fun to be in high school and have all of these CYO dances," she said. "We got to hear these bands and stay off the streets and have fun with other kids. It was kind of fun to date and then marry somebody who was just a great drummer."
Battling to make a name
As the band got better, members' weekends were filled with gigs, including serving as the YMCA house band. Fare remembers not only the fun of performing, but being paid three times as much as other classmates who worked part-time jobs.
As the Wrest expanded its reach, performing across the state, it entered the Jaycees Battle of the Bands contest. The band won the local competition, then competed and won the state title at the old Milwaukee Auditorium.
With little time to prepare, the band flew out to Atlantic City and competed nationally with bands from 34 states. They were required to produce separate sets of 45, 30, 15 and 10 minutes.
"We had just a few days to put together a show," Fare said. "We ended up taking fourth. We got penalized because our last 10-minute set was a combination of the first three. We just ran out of time. If we had more time to prepare, I truly believe we would have won it."
On its return to Wisconsin, The Wrest garnered newspaper coverage, as it continued to play locally and across the state. Not long after, the band's booking agent was approached by a recording executive from RCA Records who had written a song he wanted the band to perform called "Bet Your Sweet Bippy."
"Our reaction was, 'What?' " Fare said. "It was a bubblegum song, and we did intricate vocal songs; it wasn't our style. Bubblegum music was just beginning to happen then."
The rationale for the song was that it was a way to capitalize on a popular expression used on the popular comedy show of the late 1960s, "Rowan and Martin's Laugh In," in which the oft-repeated punch line for the cast of characters was "You bet your sweet bippy!"
The Wrest recorded the song, and it became a regional hit.
"It was a novelty song," said Gregory John of WOKY radio. John hosts a program called "Throwback Thursdays" on which Fare will be a guest today, June 28. "I thought it was kind of that goofy genre. But, it turns out that this band is really good, and I am looking forward to playing those songs on the air."
After "Bet Your Sweet Bippy" hit, the band was approached by Capitol Records and asked to record a cover of a lesser-known Beatles song called "Two of Us." But, just as the song started to air, the band's bass player was drafted, and Capitol pulled the record from the airwaves and terminated the recording contract.
Too legit to quit
By then, members of the band were getting ready for college and starting to leave the group.
Fare joined the Air Force Reserves, and eventually The Wrest disbanded.
"But, we all remained great, close friends, and we are to this day," Fare said.
About 18 years ago, one of the band members suggested the band get back together and play a charity event. So, Fare and the band rented Victory Hall in Cudahy along with all the necessary sound equipment.
"It was a smashing success," he said.
The band waited another year or so, and from that point forward, performed another half dozen concerts for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
"We rehearse every week for six months," Fare said. "It's as much fun for the camaraderie, as much as the seriousness of getting ready to play. It becomes something for us to look forward to."
The original band members of The Wrest include: Bob Sowinski on guitar and vocals, South Milwaukeean Tim DeMaster on lead vocals, Tom Witter on lead guitar and vocals, and Ed Weggner on bass and vocals. The only non-original member is keyboard player Sam Steffke. Everyone in the band sings except Fare.
"It's a true absolute friendship - six men that were boys that grew up together, having weddings, children and sharing tragedies and joys in life," he said. "And now, here we are … looking to play the Summerfest show."
At a glance
WHAT: The Wrest, a six-piece classic rock band
WHERE: M&I Bank Classic Rock Stage at Summerfest, Henry W. Maier Festival Park
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, July 8
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