Mile-High Motown

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: March 2018
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Prior to superstardom, The Jackson 5 played to enthusiastic crowds in Winslow – the siblings’ first performances outside their home state of Indiana.

Winslow’s passing mention in the song “Take It Easy,” released by the Eagles in 1972, has long kept the struggling Arizona community along Route 66 afloat in our pop-culture consciousness. The city transformed a vacant downtown lot into the Standin’ on the Corner Park in 1999, which annually attracts an estimated 100,000 visitors.

The park salutes a song about an event that didn’t occur in Winslow, however. Jackson Browne, the song’s co-author, said the image of the girl driving the truck happened in Flagstaff, according to a Los Angeles Times article in 2015.

The Jackson 5 in 1969; Photo courtesy RetroLess publicized is another piece of Winslow musical history that also involved some folks named “Jackson.” Just a block from the park is the venue where a legendary Gary, Indiana, group performed in 1966. Most rock fans making pilgrimages to Winslow are not aware of this unmarked site of an early Jackson Five performance, one of Arizona’s most surprising musical claims to fame.

Although an unlikely locale for a milestone Motown concert, Winslow was a vibrant place in 1966. The “Gateway to the Painted Desert” was competing with (now uber-hip) Flagstaff for pre-eminence in northern Arizona. The cities had similar populations as late as 1950, when Winslow featured the elegant La Posada Hotel, a busy airport designed by aviator Charles Lindbergh, and Arizona’s first divided stretch of highway on Route 66.

Within a decade, however, La Posada had closed, and Winslow was shedding residents – a decline that lasted until 2000. Still, the city managed to attract at least two new residents in 1966: Samuel Jackson and his wife, Crystal Lee King Jackson – elderly Midwesterners who yearned to be close to their daughter, Lula Hawkins, a nurse who had moved to Arizona with her own daughter in 1961 to alleviate the child’s asthma.

The Jacksons moved into a house kitty-corner from where Zach Thomas grew up on the northeast corner of Snider Avenue and Fourth Street, a block off Route 66. “My mother, Lila Thomas, worked in the kitchen with Mrs. Jackson at Winslow Head Start,” the 63-year-old retired construction engineer says.

The couple was visited that summer by their son, Joe Jackson, and his family. The entourage included his wife Katherine, daughters Rebbie, La Toya and Janet, and sons Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael, collectively known as The Jackson 5 in Gary’s up-and-coming R&B scene. The band’s drummer, Earl Gault, also fit into the crowded Volkswagen van that made the 1,600-mile journey from Gary. They made only one pitstop, a five-hour break to visit relatives in Oklahoma City, according to Steve Knopper’s 2015 book MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson.

The Jackson kids had never before left the Gary area and were happy for a break from the crime-ridden industrial city. The future “King of Pop” Michael, in particular, was amazed by Arizona’s landscape. “Michael used to like nature-type stuff,” said Gault, in Knopper’s book. “He ended up putting some of that red dirt [from Northern Arizona] in this jar and bringing it back.”

the Winslow Black Elks Lodge; Photo courtesy Douglas C.Towne;The Jackson 5 had formed in 1964 at the behest of their father, who managed them in a notoriously domineering – by many accounts abusive – manner. The group had previously ventured only as far as Chicago’s South Side for gigs in clubs, “playing between bad comedians, cocktail organists and strippers,” Michael recalled in his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk, excerpted in Knopper’s book.

The Jackson clan visited the Grand Canyon, fished at nearby Clear Creek Reservoir and constantly rehearsed while in Winslow. “I was closest to Tito, who was my age, and Jermaine,” Thomas says. “Every night, a group of neighborhood kids would play baseball at the rodeo grounds ballfield, and the Jacksons occasionally joined us.”

One evening, when The Jackson 5 hadn’t rehearsed enough to satisfy their father, Joe showed up. “He walked onto the field, halted the game and started spanking all his sons,” Thomas says. “The rest of the kids stood there in shock. For him, it was all about having his sons practice their music. But I guess it paid off for them.”

“The Jacksons knew how to play baseball,” their cousin Wendell Hawkins, Lula’s son, concurs. “We fielded a team of the Jacksons along with a few friends and relatives and beat Winslow’s best. The locals were so mad, there was a big scuffle afterward.”

The band’s rehearsals at their grandparents’ house attracted an audience. “They were unbelievably good,” Thomas says. He recalls the group playing at the Elks I.B.P.O.E.W., or Black Elks Lodge, located a block from the Standin’ on the Corner Park.

On August 18, 1966, a concert at the lodge on August 20 was promoted in the Winslow Reminder, a mimeographed advertising sheet. “The Reminder was published three times a week and was the Twitter or Instagram of its day,” says Docia Blalock, the Winslow city librarian whose staff discovered the ad.

The announcement urged everyone to “Dance to the music of the Jackson ‘Five’ (ages 7 to 14) and Gault, the drummer, from Gary, Indiana” for “$1.25 per person.” The performance drew an enthusiastic, racially diverse crowd, according to Thomas. “People threw change on the stage, which was common back then for good performers so they could make money,” he says.

“I vividly remember Michael performing a James Brown dance routine, where he’d do the splits on stage to kick the money back to his brothers,” Wendell Hawkins says of the concert.

a flyer for the band’s August 1966 show in Winslow; photo courtesy Linda KorThe group performed covers of hits by James Brown, Sam and Dave, and Motown artists. The Motown selections were prescient: The Jackson 5’s first four singles were written for the group after they were signed by Motown Records in 1969. “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” all reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top 40.

Thomas recalls the Jacksons also performing concerts at Winslow’s since-demolished Prairie Moon tavern and the Winslow Armory. He says the family visited Winslow again in the summer of 1967, and made a brief stop still later. “They were looking for their cousin, Lula,” Thomas says. “Tito told me they were on their way to Los Angeles to record music, but I didn’t believe him. Next thing, I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show.”

The Jacksons’ grandparents moved to Phoenix around 1968, where they passed away in the early 1990s.

As the decades passed, memories about The Jackson 5 in Winslow faded. After Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, Thomas contacted the local newspaper about the story. “It was exciting to have the information verified and see legend become fact,” says Linda Kor, managing editor at The Tribune-News/Silver Creek Herald who wrote an article on the rock history apocrypha. “Winslow has had this jewel of information hidden away, and no one really talked about it.”

After Kor’s article, Thomas experienced the opposite problem. “Many residents wanted to write themselves into the history of The Jackson 5,” he says, with a laugh. “The stories just kept getting crazier and crazier.”

A tribute to Michael Jackson was held at Winslow’s Standin’ on the Corner Festival in 2009. Thomas’s cousin, Mary Alice Hayes, and her gospel group, Sounds of Faith, performed. “I invited Michael Jackson’s cousins, Wendell and Martell Hawkins from Phoenix, to visit, and they joined us onstage to sing a few of his songs,” she says.

Travelers now have another reason to stop in Winslow and envision how the city hosted both easy-listening rockers and future Motown stars who visited via Route 66 when the highway was the Main Street of America. “After learning about The Jackson 5 story, I could almost picture the neighborhood kids hanging out on the sidewalk down from Samuel’s house, getting into the music emanating from the garage,” Kor says.