Harmony Grit

Seasoned musician Walt Richardson shares his tasty licks with the neighborhood.

Richardson nods politely and replies, "It's cool. We're at Beeloe's every Monday night."

For a guy long on road tales and the immediate adulation of a live audience, Richardson reveals none of that alpha-dudeness common to countless boy bands whose life course is shaped by simple choices made in the avaricious desire for girls. Conversation never casually veers toward his urge's ebb and flow, no chicks-dig-me, certainty-of-his-dick colloquy. And there's none of the smart-ass lingo and wry jibing common to band folk.

His salty Peter Pan laugh rears. "My parents thought I was gonna be a priest!"

Assuming the position: Walt Richardson at Tempe's Beeloe's.
Paolo Vescia
Assuming the position: Walt Richardson at Tempe's Beeloe's.
Smiles abound during a classroom performance at St. Agnes Parochial School.
Paolo Vescia
Smiles abound during a classroom performance at St. Agnes Parochial School.

Is the irony lost on him?

A day in Richardson's life is exhausting: Following a time-honored breakfast at Harlow's, there's an early-morning meeting with Tempe's Knot Known records for possible distribution of his music; a trip to the soon-to-close Judson boarding school to go over details of a June farewell gig; a meeting with an accountant concerning taxes (honesty nod -- a self-employed musician claiming untraceable cash as negligible as the meager tip-jar earnings from an afternoon coffee-house gig); a melancholy farewell to old friends at a closing Mill Avenue bookstore; a 2 p.m. lecture/solo performance at St. Agnes parochial school on the roots of reggae (and done with enough verve that students stayed late to hear more music); two hours of what he calls "going to the office" that see him making follow-up calls, booking gigs, doing paperwork, etc.; a meeting with a grant writer to help fund an organization spearheaded by Richardson called Arts for the Healing of Humanity; a solo show in Tempe later that night . . .

And throughout the day, he's greeted ubiquitously as if he's judging a contest for best head nods, hugs, handshakes and anecdotal reminiscing.

The next week he is off to the Four Corners area to work with Navajo schoolchildren. The periodic trips to the reservation find him hosting art-therapy workshops and self-esteem projects.

"Sometimes I go just to spend time with the kids, where I am just doing activities like shooting pool and throwing a baseball around or something," he says. "But I usually have two or three shows that I do, two of them for the school (kindergarten through sixth grade) and one for the Navajo community."

Walt Richardson was the first of eight born into a military family. As an Air Force tot, Japan became as familiar as Delaware, the Philippines as Florida; foreign culture became as familiar as fast food. And living in close quarters with many siblings in a semi-migratory manner was for him a precursor of sorts.

"It's a role that I have always played, being the oldest of eight in the family. I was always the baby sitter. I was always in the role of entertainer with them in some kind of way, making arts and crafts, made-up stories and made-up plays."

"He's a practical joker," kids Lili, Richardson's little sis and Morning Star's gutsy, highly animate back-up singer -- Richardson's sole sibling in Arizona. "He's four years older than me, and he's somebody we've always looked up to."

Growing up Catholic, he spent years in altar boy robes surrounded by priests, establishing a dialogue and trust.

Yet, if there is a theme stringing through his conversations, it's not rooted in religious dogma; rather, it's the simple dictum of Honor Your Ma and Pa.

"You're told how to live in the sense that you do what makes sense. All of that is just basic maintenance, and my parents are great people. They didn't care what John and George and Sue up the street were doing. It was like, 'You are our child. You are our responsibility.'"

Richardson's father is a vocalist who has done USO tours with Bob Hope. He's also a church deacon who has, over the years, released two inspirational recordings. By all accounts, he's a real cutup, singer and storyteller. Richardson's mother did work with Catholic Social Services. His parents have been married 47 years.

"When I was down in Florida, I went to a church service that his father was very much in charge of," says Hannes Kvaran, a math and economics teacher at Glendale Community College who befriended Richardson more than 20 years ago as a guitarist. Kvaran over the years has been an on-again-off-again member of Morning Star since its inception. "When you see his father being the preacher, you can see that Walt very clearly comes through his father."

Despite listening to the Beatles, James Brown, various R&B and other devil's music of the era, Richardson maintains that the guitar wasn't something he saw as a greedy road to chicks and easy riches. Even as a hormonal teen.

"The reason I started playing guitar -- it was just a cool instrument," says Richardson. "I always enjoyed the arrangement of sounds and solos and what you can communicate with guitar. It was a vehicle to express things, express feelings in a thought-out manner."

His first six-string, in fact, was a Mickey Mouse job, one he would strap on while Elvis rocked his playpen with "Hound Dog."

When he says, "Music was something that was so much a part of me," it doesn't ring of Cheese Whiz bio lingo. He was drawn to music in much the same way the Rastafarians were drawn to reggae: because it defined for them life's hells, highs and dreams.

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