To Tempe folk, Walt Richardson is a kind of neighborhood good-vibe merchant who, for the better part of two decades, has fronted the much-adored Walt Richardson and Morning Star, a sundry-styled blend of happy-faced vets playing with aplomb a "world pop" that has added much color to a somewhat milky Tempe music scene.
In certain Arizona circles, namely disadvantaged school kids and overburdened educators, he's perceived as a dreadlocked ambassador of altruism, using music as a kind of community outreach, demonstrating for children the value of art and music for self-definition and for their long-term worth in the grand scheme of things.
And only once, as an artist-in-residence with the Arizona Commission for the Arts, was he compensated for this work.
Holding forth in a Mill Avenue cafe, Richardson relates thoughts and observations in a gentle, kindly tone that I could almost imagine leading to an invite to the toilet stall for a ganja lesson in well-being. But that was just another in a litany of preconceptions. For one thing, he says, pot was but a tangent of youthful intemperance.
"I find my mission the same way I find music," confides Richardson between bites of a Mediterranean salad. "It would vibrate. That's what I try to tell the kids to do. Stick to the things that give you that vibration: 'You go read a book, you can feel it start there. You go ride a bike, you can feel it start there.' You increase that vibe, that feeling; it starts giving you ideas of other things that you can do."
He demonstrates said vibration by offering a terse, single-note hum, as if he's setting the pitch for a barbershop quartet: "Hmmmmmm," followed quickly with a kid-like "he-he" chortle that's sullied with a grainy timbre born of countless nights spent singing through dubious PA systems in smoky bars.
Astoundingly, for more than 20 years, the man has modeled a living -- albeit Spartan at times -- solely from performing live, and mainly in Tempe. Never has the windfall of a major-label advance or some fat publishing check lifted him from a tight circumstance. He is living by his own definition, the American Dream as defined by just being you.
Richardson's house is a carport made into a two-room apartment, in which the main room doubles as kitchen and a recording studio for his song demos. The place is comfortable and intimate and has a casual Caribbean color scheme. Shelves of books run the spiritual gamut. Healthy plants hang over the front window. A bit of Mexican folk art, analog and digital portable recorders, a stereo with his latest CD in the player, various knickknacks of his career and a Bob Marley calendar fill out the room. He has lived in this same spot for the last 20 years.
"When I come back to my apartment, my space, I realize you don't really need much. I am really glad for where I am. If you take what I have and put it in El Salvador, I'd look like upper class!
"I have also created a lifestyle that allows me to be able to spend more time and thought . . . . I don't have an overhead. But it has taken over 20 years to develop it; it didn't happen overnight. If I was working a job and supporting a family, I wouldn't have this time to do the other things."
In the mind of a career musician, decades of journeyman struggles and rock-star musings have a tendency to arouse cynicism and resentment toward exterior encumbrances such as people, places and things. Nary a trace surfaces in 46-year-old Richardson. Anything that could even remotely resemble bitterness is supplanted by spontaneous onrush of the compassion he has for needy kids lacking the means or parenting to build foundations of self-esteem.
"I attribute everything that I have learned from what I call a faith-based, spirit-based nurturing in the home. Praying together, understanding the nature of prayer. My dad is who I model my life after because he is the one who guided this. The things that I'm doing are simply one-tenth of the things that have been provided for me. That's why I feel like I can't give it up.
"As a kid I remember that 'get out in the world and win' attitude, and I was like, 'Win what? What am I going to win?' I am glad that I didn't run out there and do that."
Sandal-clad and sun-ripened ASU students stream through the cafe and stop long enough for half-sawbuck purchases of something frothy. Skulky posture, cumbersome book bags and murmurs as unobtrusive as the supersonic strains of Macy Gray's "I Try" all belie the usual April verve of spring and the school year's imminent end.
One of them, a pert brunette, sees Richardson and approaches our table. "Hey, Walt, sorry I missed your gig the other night. I had to study." The college girl has multiple piercings, and on her torso, a teal-colored, serpent-like tattoo peeking from beneath a loosely fitted top. She appears to be just this side of drinking age and digging the Richardson groove.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
"It's in one of the poorest districts of Maricopa County," he says. "And they have interesting programs with the kids fusing music and arts at a very young age. So they got Mozart playing while the kids are taking nap time. They draw and they have colors. I chose that charity because I thought we need to put a voice to the charities that are actually using these kinds of tools.
"One of the selling points was an emotional thing. Some of these kids come in on Monday and they haven't had anything to eat since Friday. I stopped and dropped my jaw."
A live CD that will soon be available was recorded from the Tempe festival featuring the likes of Stephen Ashbrook, Hans Olson and Joe Meyers, among many others, who donated their time and effort. All proceeds from the sale of the disc will go to the learning center.
Janelle Degn, director of program services at Phoenix Day, describes the center's relationship with Richardson as "wonderful."
"I see him as a partner," says Karyn Parker, the center's executive director. "Being a nonprofit organization, donations come in many forms, but with Walt we get financial help and creativity from his music. He's absolutely a gift from heaven."
Walt Richardson's latest record -- made with Hannes Kvaran -- 1998's Silent Artist, is an all-acoustic blend of chimey folk and sing-songy narrative pulled by themes of self-discovery, inner peace and failed love. Richardson and Kvaran match their bright-eyed folk roots with fetching harmonies and the chemistry that gives Morning Star's live bit a whole level of sincerity.
"Mill Avenue" is the set's best song; all open chord melancholy using the destruction of old Mill Avenue as metaphor for a relationship gone south. But the song's power-positive "Still Survivin'" stamps out some of the subtlety by the end.
"Bands are just made to make people hate each other," Kvaran says. Being in a band with somebody can be a very high-stress way to know somebody. After 20 years I still love him. And . . . we are still really good friends after all this time. The chemistry wouldn't work if we didn't like each other. I wouldn't be interested in playing with him if it wasn't personally worthwhile.
"A lot of his father's side comes through and it always has," he continues. "He goes to church a lot. He's an interesting mixture of his own kind of spiritualism. And on the other hand, he's very traditional; going to Catholic church you can't get much more traditional."
Back on Mill, I ask Richardson what he would say if he were accused of cleverly masking self-promotion in the guise of goodwill.
"I've never had confrontations with people like that because I have never really put myself in a spot to have to defend myself," he says. "I've always felt that in staying open, you're allowing people to have their opinions. So there have been people who have had opinions that differed from mine. When I feel like I can help out, it doesn't mean that I help out to a point of suffering, by any means. It just means that I can help push the car when it breaks down, one more hand pushing the car. I really don't have to do anything, I could just play my guitar, come home and be through with it."
Could he really?
Richardson hops on his bike and rolls south, a blur of dreads and shadows bouncing behind him. Somebody calls out his name, but Richardson is out of earshot. He circles around a corner and is gone. If nothing else the man is rooted.
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: [email protected]