Harmony Grit

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

By the mid-'70s, Walt Richardson was living in Tempe, working the dishwasher/car-wash gig and putting his speech and communication degree from ASU to good use playing Jackson Browne and Cat Stevens covers at local open-mike nights. Soon an impermanent job teaching in the Head Start program for preschoolers came along.

His first real band was a trio called Driftwood that he formed with Kvaran and that got its start entertaining wacky office gangs during happy hour at Chuy's on Mill. By 1979, Driftwood was a full-on band, able to fill Tempe venues on the strength of Richardson's songs and a blend of curious covers including Jamaican Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley.

Children at Phoenix Day are down with Richardson.
Paolo Vescia
Children at Phoenix Day are down with Richardson.
Richardson chats with two girls at St. Agnes.
Paolo Vescia
Richardson chats with two girls at St. Agnes.

Driftwood soon dissolved, and Richardson went back to the stool for more solo work and writing. By the early 1980s, Richardson had put together Walt Richardson and Morning Star.

Richardson's songwriting and attitude toward his music became similar to the spirit of traditional reggae and even early punk rock, where the need for validation has not often been felt; the music is merely there to be made by him and dug by those coming to see him. Social issues and spiritualism were themes far outweighing any desire to sell loads of records, much less use the propaganda machine to do so.

"Marley had a big influence, clearly," says Kvaran. "But I hadn't really thought of Walt too much as being someone who has looked at anybody else and said, 'I want to be like that.'

"He just played what he wanted and was very fortunate that it was something people wanted to hear, which is what has managed to keep him alive. He didn't bend what he wanted to do to what he thought people wanted to hear. He didn't go about saying, 'Okay, how do I get rich and famous?'"

The Morning Star songs had African and Caribbean influences, blending soca, mambo, salsa with bits of dub, R&B and Richie Valens-style pop. The band did extensive annual U.S. touring, focusing on consecutive three- to eight-week tours during the summer and fall. It toured as part of the Miller Band Network in 1991 and 1992. The band played everything from weddings and educational seminars to headlining concerts and huge international festivals.

But after three releases -- the 1985 debut; 1987's Double Bridge; 1991's Another Way -- a life-sustaining local and regional draw and an international buzz, the original lineup sputtered in 1993 when three members bailed (one of whom was Richardson's bro Henri who relocated to San Diego) before ultimately splitting up in 1997. The current Morning Star is more a group of weekend warriors long past the point of looking at music as the proverbial means to an end; yet some of its members had played in various incarnations of the group.

"Everybody got to that point in life where it was time for personal goals to be met," Richardson says. "Everybody had the rock 'n' roll dreams, but at the same time, everybody had realities that were happening in their lives along the side that needed some nurturing and time.

"People enjoyed Morning Star because it was an experience in the music. That's what we like to get out of our music, some kind of experience. Ours was more grassroots rather than a real slick record label-marketing package. In a lot of places a lot of people didn't know how to market us; we weren't really a reggae band and we weren't really a rock band and we weren't really a jazz band, but we had those things flowing through all that, with little bits of Latin."

In the Tonto neighborhood of south Phoenix, there's a shrill, rote-like presence of jets ascending from Sky Harbor runways. Barking dogs traipse about freely. A drug dealer's nod can be found with little difficulty on one of the streets. Mothers push babies in strollers, and children burn pavement on bikes. A few homes sit blank and uncomprehending, using scraps of metal and wood planks for life support.

Yet other homes dotting the area show promise of renewal, an optimism: restored facades in breezy hues, front-yard gardens and wind chimes, Our Lady of Guadalupe altars, grottos and murals.

And as a kind of ironic, patronizing reminder of civil priorities, the government-subsidized Bank One Ballpark sits in all of its glory just a few blocks to the north, dominating the downtown skyline from this vantage.

The Tonto neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city and is home to Arizona's oldest operating child-care center in Arizona, the Phoenix Day Child and Family Learning Center. Phoenix Day is a nonprofit child-care provider on a well-told but deceptively simple mission: To support and strengthen low-income families in south-central Phoenix. Nearly 90 percent of the children come from single-parent, female-headed households, most of them at or below the federal poverty level. The bulk of the center's funding comes from community support and United Way; the other 25 percent is DES subsidies and client fees.

Richardson, through an annual benefit he organizes called the Winter Sun Music Festival, this year raised cash and awareness for the learning center. He was drawn to the center because it incorporates a creative curriculum, one that essentially blends art and music therapy with literature, dance, science and mathematics, as well as computer learning programs intended for preschool and kindergarten-age kids. And everything is bilingual. Children coming in monolingual leave bilingual.

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