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.