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Rico J. Puno, Soul Music Pioneer in the Philippines, Dies at 65

Rico J. Puno, a pop singer from the Philippines who channeled U.S. superstars to forge a distinctive brand of local soul music, died Tuesday in Taguig, east of Manila. He was 65.

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Mike Ives
, New York Times

Rico J. Puno, a pop singer from the Philippines who channeled U.S. superstars to forge a distinctive brand of local soul music, died Tuesday in Taguig, east of Manila. He was 65.

A sister-in-law, Anna Puno, confirmed his death in an Instagram post. Puno had triple-bypass heart surgery in 2015, and the domestic news media reported Tuesday that the cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Puno became famous in the 1970s by covering American hits — including Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” and Marvin Gaye’s “Baby I’m for Real” — in a mix of English and Tagalog, the country’s dominant language. Those recordings put him in the vanguard of the Manila Sound, Filipino popular music from roughly the mid-1970s through the end of the Ferdinand Marcos era in 1986.

While the Manila Sound encompassed many genres with roots in the United States, such as soul and disco, it also had a distinct melodic style that incorporated Filipino folk traditions and that transcended foreign influences, said Joel Quizon, a DJ, filmmaker and music curator in Los Angeles. He said the term Original Pilipino Music eventually replaced Manila Sound as a shorthand for Filipino pop music.

As Puno’s profile grew over the years, he became known throughout the Philippines as the larger-than-life Total Entertainer. Among many other projects, he was a longtime spokesman for San Miguel beer; the host of “Lunch Date,” a popular television variety show; and a star on the sitcom “Home Sweetie Home.”

He also represented Makati City, in the Manila area, as a city councilor from 1998 to 2007, and was re-elected in 2016 after losing a 2010 race for vice mayor. He had planned to run again in 2019, local news media reported.

“We express our condolences to the legend that is Rico J. Puno,” Salvador Panelo, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, told reporters Tuesday. “He has contributed a lot to the music industry.”

Despite his forays into television and politics, Puno was perhaps best known as the ultimate Macho Gwapito, or Little Handsome, a nickname derived from his hit song of the same name.

The term “refers usually to young and rising movie teen stars, but what was wonderful about Rico J., as he was called, was that he impishly appropriated it,” said Patricio Abinales, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “So he was not only the ‘ultimate macho,’ but he was also ‘little handsome,’ which endeared him to younger women.”

Enrico De Jesus Puno was born on Feb. 13, 1953, and grew up in Manila, according to a short biography posted on his website. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he tried to find work as a bell boy. But when he failed to get the job, he ended up singing folk songs in Manila nightclubs.

Puno’s big break — a deal with Vicor Records — was precipitated by an encounter in the 1970s with the Motown band the Temptations at the Palazzi, a club where Puno played regularly. It was during this period that he recorded his signature version of “The Way We Were,” among other popular American songs.

Puno made American music his own by adding bawdy lyrics and banter in Tagalog. One of his best-known covers, for example, was “You Don’t Have to Be a Star,” by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. And he embellished it with this line: “Even if you’re ugly, I still need you.”

Over the years, Puno performed solo and with the Hitmakers, a group that included Filipino musicians Rey Valera and Hajji Alejandro.

“Rico, Valera and Hajji were three of the biggest stars of the glory days of Filipino music,” music columnist Baby A. Gil wrote in The Philippine Star in 2002. “It is to their credit that they have retained the same vast degree of talent, unique performing style and the capability to excite an audience over nearly 30 years.”

In the 1970s and early '80s, Puno’s star rose at a time when the Marcos regime, which led the Philippines with an iron fist for two decades, was promoting local songwriting competitions. Quizon said that the largely upbeat Manila Sound that Puno helped pioneer was occasionally “derided as too happy or optimistic, especially during that time’s political climate.”

But Puno, a Marcos supporter, was not one to apologize for his art. His website says that his destiny was to be “the Philippines’ one and only Total Entertainer!”

“Only God can stop me from singing,” he told reporters in February at a news conference to promote a concert. “He gave me this gift and only He can take it back.”

His survivors include a daughter, Tosca Camille Puno-Ramos. Information on other survivors was not immediately available.

On Tuesday, some of the best-known musicians and celebrities in the Philippines celebrated Puno’s legacy in glowing terms on social media.

“Rest In Peace, Rico J. Puno,” singer and actress Lea Salonga told her 5.3 million Twitter followers. “Your distinctive voice that lent itself to so much of the music of my childhood will not be forgotten.”

“We will miss you! Now that you are in heaven, behave!” wrote the singer Martin Nievera. “We love you!”

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