Harmony Grit

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"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."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith