MANILA -- Not many people know this but Rico J. Puno was the first major Filipino performer to tour the United States. This happened 40 years ago back in the 1978 when Puno’s popularity was at an all-time high. His fifth album, "The Total Entertainer," was a chart-topper.
My father, Danny Olivares, was then president of the Philippine Association of the Record Industry and along with his siblings Rogel, Totit and Ben, brought Puno to the US for several shows. Billed as “Manila-Memphis-USA,” Puno flew in with a full band and opening acts of impersonators of Elvis Presley (Bill Haney) and Nat King Cole (Larry Strong who went to Manila in the 1980s and married a Filipina) plus some dancers.
“We started the tour in Bakersfield that wasn’t too small but not too big, just right for an intimate show,” recalled my Uncle Ben who was based in Los Angeles at that time. “That got everyone ready for the big date at the Sports Arena -- the old arena of the Los Angeles Clippers. All the chairs were arranged in circular fashion around the stage and it was a great show."
They next hit the Cow Palace San Francisco that, although not filled, (the venue sits 16,000-plus people for concerts), still drew a huge audience.
The Memphis show was the highlight of the tour. “Rico was a huge Elvis fan,” said my dad. “He really wanted to play in the King’s hometown.”
They managed to book a show. However, it did have its glitch.
The American crew than handled the sound system refused to allow the use of the equipment until the promoter paid them.
“The show was delayed because of this and the crowd was getting angry,” shared my father. “Rico was such a trouper that he was willing to sing acapella. Of course, that was unacceptable. Once he got on stage, he cracked his jokes and disarmed the crowd that a good time was eventually held by all.”
“Rico sat in front of the stage and looked at one Filipino in the audience and asked, ‘Meron ba akong muta?’ The fan said no. Then Rico said, ‘Buti ka pa meron.’ It does sound a little crass, but everyone was laughing.”
The show went on and a great time was had by all.
Remarked the American owner of the venue, “This is incredible that you managed to fill this place. Is he your man?”
My dad, proud of that moment, replied, “Yes, he is our man.”
Sadly, the promoter never did pay the American crew.
During the tour, Puno saw my Uncle Ben wearing a pair of French pants that were popular at that time. He asked my uncle where he could buy some and he bought a lot. When he returned to Manila, he was the only one wearing them and being a fashionable person, he was given quite a few style points.
“Rico wasn’t only a total performer,” said my uncle, “but he also had this impeccable sense for fashion. He liked dressing up. Years later, when we saw each other again in Manila, he thanked me for helping him get those pants. He loved them.”
Towards the end of the tour, two record executives from Herb Alpert’s A&M Records sat down with my father and Uncle Ben about signing Puno to a recording contract. “Is he here right now?” my uncle recalled one executive who raved about the record. “That is some voice.”
Unfortunately, Puno had gone back home with the tour over. Once back in Manila, for some reason, the deal never worked out. But no matter, it launched Puno’s international career.
“It was a great tour,” recalled my father (who retired from the recording industry in the early years of the new millennium) as we talked about Rico’s passing away. “It was a great experience for all of us. Especially, for Rico. And we became such good friends.”