SINGER Rico J. Puno is dead. When people talked about it on Facebook, I thought it was just one of the many hoaxes that abound in social media. So I checked the more reliable traditional media and the report was confirmed. The original Pilipino music (OPM) icon died of heart failure. He was 65.
I don’t pretend to know the man. All that I know of him was his music, one that got popular at a time when members of my generation were still in their formative years. That is why Rico J and his contemporaries will always be remembered because they colored our perception of those times when we were young and innocent.
When Rico J first burst into the Philippine music scene, I was a boy growing up in Sitio Kawayan in Barangay Sambag 2 in Cebu City. I remember us kids talking passionately about him and his music—no, not only him but also Yoyoy Villame, Diego Salvador and Esteban Escudero. We were more of radio buffs than TV fanatics for a reason. We grew up in a community where not many owned television sets.
The song that attracted us most to Rico J was his cover of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” His voice was unique because it was gravely and soulful. But it was how he added elements to the song that attracted millions of listeners to it. Who could not relate to the line, “Namamasyal pa sa Luneta, na walang pera”? Just like that and a classy song became a “pangmasa” anthem.
In a way, Rico J helped usher in the OPM, as the incorporation of Tagalog lyrics into an English song soon gave way to a flood of original Filipino music compositions. He himself would cover more English songs but soon crossed over to Filipino songs like “Buhat,” “Damdamin,” “Lupa,” “May Bukas Pa,” “Ang Tao’y Marupok,” etc. They were haunting ballads that bordered the gospel song genre (indeed, “Diyos ang Pag-ibig” could qualify as one).
He was, of course, not a saint. There was a roughness and naughtiness in his character that soon became known as Rico J the person became more identifiable than his songs. This side of him was reflected in songs like “Macho Gwapito,” “Cartada Diyes” and “Magkasuyo Buong Gabi.” He became not only a Jukebox King but also a sought-after performer in the ‘70s and ‘80s, earning the tag, “Total Entertainer.”
When the popularity of OPM waned, he and other icons of the ‘70s and ‘80s like Marco Sison, Nonoy Zuñiga, Basil Valdez, Rey Valera, etc. brought their acts to the concert stage, combining whatever remained of their star power for their fans and the latter generations to savor. Rico J became known for his green jokes and the overall naughtiness.
But always, there was the voice and the songs. Rico J belonged to a period when singers were known more for the uniqueness of their voice than for the mastery of technique. In a way, he was more like the Jukebox Kings of old like Eddie Peregrina and Victor Wood and comparable to his contemporaries Sison, Zuñiga, Valdez, Anthony Castelo, etc.
Filipino music hasn’t produced a singer like Rico J in a long while, one that would help change the way Filipino music is being appreciated. With his passing, the wait has become even more compelling./sunstar Cebu