(Ed: This profile first came out in Metro hiM Magazine in 2007. We are publishing it online in light of The Great Rico Beybeh's passing.)
Halfway through the interview, I remembered a scene from the movie Amadeus: a mortally jealous Antonio Salieri cursing God for bequeathing the gift of divine music to an uncouth, potty-mouthed young punk named Mozart. Rico J Puno has the filthiest mouth this side of the MMDA dump, always armed with a joke involving lots of genitalia and bodily fluids. Ironically it is the same mouth that has given some of the most soulful vocal performances in the history of Pinoy pop—recordings with such transcendent charge they encroach into the boundaries of the spiritual.
Listen to "Lupa," which he renders with almost Biblical grandeur, in a way no other human being alive could have. And then you listen to him say something like, “Pag ang Pinay pumuntang Japan, japayuki.” “Ang Hapon, pag pumunta dito... Namum*ki.”
Perhaps the majority of today's audiences merely know of Rico J. Puno as that lecherous, mustachioed weasel on TV, whose dirty wisecracks makes even Korina Sanchez and Sharon Cuneta blush uncomfortably. Ironic and at the same time tragic—for Rico J. remains one of the greatest voices in the history of Philippine music.
It's a voice that is not forgotten easily. Raspy, in an unmistakably black American soul temperament yet retaining that genuine Pinoy sense of sentiment, evoking Joe Cocker, the prewar bluesmen, and the lovelorn kundiman singers of yore. A voice you will not mistake for anybody else's.
We sometimes confuse our Hajjis with our Basils, our Anthony Castelos with our Nonoy Zunigas, but a Rico Puno record sounds like nothing else in this stratosphere. Listen to how he soars on the last few bars of "Lupa"—the Charo Unite composition that has gone beyond being just a Metropop finalist into a timeless church hymn and funeral eulogy (This is not a morbid put-down but the ultimate compliment). Listen to how he manages to hit those difficult upper-registers, which is not merely about meaningless pharyngeal acrobatics but of a sensibility arising out of a deep sense of existential understanding. Or anguish. Or perhaps joy. The same can be heard on his other inspirational hits: "Kapalaran," "May Bukas Pa," "Diyos ang Pag-Ibig," "Buhat." Pure genius.
The concepts of "deep" and "existential" might be more aptly associated with the monastic Basil Valdez. Not so with the three-time councilor of the 1st District of Makati they once called "Haring Bastos," who was a co-host of a lovably tacky noontime variety show called Chibugan Na, the man whose one lasting fashion legacy is wearing leather moccasins sans socks. For all we know, behind that greasy and horny "macho guapito" facade lies a lonely, wounded figure. It is oftentimes believed that loud and boorish behavior is merely a mask for something gentle and crystalline inside.
"Wala eh, ganun na `ko talaga eh," he says, when asked, of the dichotomy between Rico J the genius singer and Rico J the foul-mouthed old wanker. "Front ko lang `yun to hide my insecurity. Because when I was in high school and college, I wasn't able to fully express myself." Straight face, serious tone. No lewd punchline afterwards. This was minutes after explaining why he would much prefer female balikbayans as guests at his own Coriks Bar in Makati. "Pag babae dinner lang eh. Pag lalakeng bisita ipapa-bl*w job mo pa vun," he says, then allowing us to recover from laughing. "Buti na lang apat ang waiters ko dito."
Unlike today's dull, antiseptic scene where pop "stars" suffer from the same ear-numbing, often recycled homogeneity, Rico J bloomed during a fertile era for songwriters and arrangers. It was a time of killer afros, bell-bottoms, and amazing pop songs that had timeless lyrics, grandiloquent orchestral arrangements, and soulful backbeats. Rico J —with his reed-thin frame, wiry moustache, and funky 'fro— loomed large over the pop music landscape of the '70s, with his hits Macho "Guapito", "Magkasuyo Buong Gabi", "The Way We Were" and its immortal spoken opening lines: "Everybody's talkin' `bout the good ol' days...Madalas mo siyang halikan/sa cheeks, sa lips, sa nose."
The word "iconic" is used in hindsight, usually after a certain period of careful assessment. But Rico J was purely iconic during his heyday, the way Pilita Corrales and Nora Aunor were. Consider the album cover of his 1977 album, The Total Entertainer: a perfectly trim Rico staring blankly into the camera, his arms akimbo. It is a simple, quiet photograph devoid of excess trimming and decor, as if connoting that everything you need was just the man. This was before the advent of slick music videos, fashion stylists, and reality show competitions. God only knows how someone like Rico J— not really a Christian Bautista lookalike— would have thrived in today's text-voting-dependent talent contests. But it was a time when recording artists could actually sing and movie stars could actually act—and champion boxers didn't put out albums. And he was not called "The Total Entertainer" for nothing.
When Rico J. Puno sang, he was electric, but not in a hyper-epileptic Gary Valenciano way. He was both cocky and sensitive. He knew his way around a microphone, each phrase corresponding to a certain bodily twitch. For me, the money shot is when he hit a difficult note—and there are many, because he tends to sing everything an octave higher. As he sustained the vibrato, his body would twist dramatically.
But the greatest virtue is that voice: that inimitable rasp, that sense of urgency that lends the pieces a rock-and-roll element. No small wonder that to this day he maintains a fanbase of the Pinoy rock glitterati, including Ely Buendia who quotes him in an Eraserheads song ("Sabi nga ni Rico J. Puno/ Mag-ayos lang claw ng upo."). T.S. Eliot once said, "Great artists steal; inferior ones borrow." Rico J. has made hits out of other people's songs—"The Way We Were", "Love Won't Let Me Wait",— and makes you forget the original. Like Jimi Hendrix stealing "All Along the Watchtower" from Bob Dylan or James Taylor snatching "You've Got a Friend" away from Carole King's fragile hands. Apart from the voice, Rico J. leaves his personal stamp: the deployment of Tagalog lines--sung or spoken—in strategic parts of the song, oftentimes to devastating effect: “Alaala nung tayo'y mag-sweetheart pa/ Namamasyal pa sa Luneta… na walaaang pera” toward the climax of "The Way We Were."
Recently he has incorporated into his live sets his version of Martin Nievera's “Kahit Isang Saglit.” It is brilliant; in classic, Rico J fashion he owns the song, like it was specifically written for him. He takes out the sappy and infuses the choruses with a considerable degree and depth. Where Martin seems to be whining in an un-masculine fashion ("Saaahaana”) Rico makes the yearning sound almost metaphysical yet brutish. A friend of mine heard the version and said that the song now has "bigote."
"Alam mo ba yung ibig sabihin ng 'PLDT'?" "Pekp*k ligo, dating tit*."—Rico J. Puno
Born in February 13, 1953, Enrico De Jesus Puno— a.k.a "Boy" to his relatives and friends in Sampaloc—was the eldest of five kids. His mother, Corazon, named him after the great opera tenor Enrico Caruso. Rico J started out in a rock and roll band while finishing his Business Administration degree from the Philippine School of Business and Arts. He had done the rounds of Manila's top folk houses and clubs when record label Vicor signed him. His first TV appearance was on Nora Aunor's "Superstar" with Lito Lapid as co-host). At that time, his debut "Love Won't Let Me Wait" already received loads of air play on Johnny de Leon’s popular radio show. Little did he – and his grandmother especially – realize that a significant fanbase had already been simmering. "Nag jeep lang ako papunta sa studio," he recalls. "Bumili ako ko damit na may star sa gitna. Nanghiram lang ako ng sapatos, at walang medyas."
After his lip-synced number in Superstar, Kitchie Benedicto approached him and asked him who he was—because the phones would not stop ringing, requesting an encore. So Rico sang the B-side of the single, "Sandra." More phone calls. He ended up doing "You Are So Beautiful" in a capella. Rico J. Puno, in a span of three songs on national TV, was a certified star. "Pag-uwi ko, nag-taxi na ako!" The next day, he could no longer go to school without being mobbed for autographs. Indeed, he was one of, if not the biggest, entertainment figures of the 70s, whose hits have defined OPM and the local pop landscape in general.
In 1976, Puno won the Aliw Award for Most Promising Entertainer. Two years later, he became Aliw's Entertainer of the Year. He has recorded the following albums under Vicor Music (in no chronological order): Rico Baby, A Private Concert with Rico J. Puno, Rico J. Puno, Macho, Guapito, Rico J. Puno, Tatak Rico J, Rico and Eliza, Spirit of Christmas, The Way We Were, The Total Entertainer, Sana Pag-ibig and several Best-of compilations that still sell to this day (He himself isn't sure of his exact discography, though he pegs the number at 12).
The tragic part is that his personal copies were all flooded out in a house he once lived in.
"The Way We Were" holds the record for being the first Filipino record to go platinum. "Kapalaran" was a bigger monster: it was three-times platinum. He was the only performer who could perform in a mainstream TV show and also get applause in snobbish venues like the CCP and Folk Arts Theater, as well as five-star hotels. He was also a San Miguel Beer endorser.
Rico J remembers the crowds: "Tens of thousands talaga, pare," he says. "Minsan wild. Wawasakin talaga yung kotse mo." I asked him about the phenomenon of panty-throwing as an extreme display of affection. "Oo, ako yung binabato ng panty," he insists, segueing into an extrapolation of the difference between the panties of today and yesterday: back then, panties were so big you'd have to pull them aside just to find the ass. Now the panties are so small that you'd have to spread the ass open to find them.
The strange thing is: the humor manages to avoid offending, regardless of the degree of tastelessness. Most of the time he's spot-on, and get this – you will laugh. Not like Willie Revilame, whose joke can sometimes be vaguely creepy or downright foul. Maybe it's all about ear, or the tone and rhythm by which one delivers the punchline. "Sa Las Vegas nga eh, maririnig mo yung mga singer minumura yung tao sa audience, `F*ck you!'," he shares, although Rico J was never in the habit of dropping expletives. It's bastos, yes, but in a most unthreateningly avuncular way.
Check, for instance, a YouTube clip from a concert tour in Vienna. In the middle of "Ang Huling El Bimbo," he walks to the crowd and in between verses, points to the buxom lady in front of him and snaps, "Ang laki ng suso nito o!" An entire auditorium of Pinoys erupts in scandalous laughter. Only Rico J. Puno gets away with that. Maybe you can also say that you don't exactly pay him to quote Scripture. Heck, he even became Makati councilor for three terms, since 1988. Now his 27-year-old daughter Tosca— also a singer herself— has taken over his political seat.
The best thing about the OFW diaspora is that it gave new lease in life to the stars of yesteryears. Because Pinoys are by nature sentimental and nostalgic, kababayans want to bring not just the bagoong and the tuyo, but their singers as well.
Rico J is just one of the many veteran performers currently in-demand by the overseas Pinoy community. Other familiar names include Mike Hanopol, Rey Valera, Marco Sison, Hajji Alejandro, Nonoy Zuniga (whom he all jokingly referred to as "matatanda na.") Wherever there are Pinoys, they'll sing. And business is good. The US tours alone keep Rico's calendar occupied for one whole year. Last year, he did Europe, together with this generation's young artistas. For the shows he usually does 20 to 30-minute sets, repertoires of his classic songs alternated with lewd standup comedy (e.g. "Use parachute in a sentence. 'Darling, dito ka nga, at tumuwad ka'— makes obscene pelvic-thrusting movements—'para shoot.’"
Yet in Vienna, he remembers visiting the home of a Pinoy whose ailing father was a big Rico J. Puno fan. The whole family was astounded when, at that very moment, the weak old man stood up upon hearing the singer's voice. It seems that "smutty" and "miraculous" can actually co-exist in the same mouth after all. Rico himself claims it was a touching sight. "Naiyak nga si Jolina eh."
During this interview at Coriks, his own bar along Pasong Tamo, Makati, (now on its fifth year) the singer showed me some footage from his European tours. To use the term laos would be unfactual. Rico J. did not go out of fashion; his fans simply moved elsewhere. In those clips, Rico was literally smothered not by senior citizens but by screaming, and, get this, young female fans barely out of their twenties— with the same degree of kilig reserved for the likes of Piolo Pascual and Sam Milby.
They would hug him while having snapshots taken, or steal a kiss, afterwards jumping like crazed schoolgirls. Asked about this unlikely demographic, he explains: "Their parents are the fans, but these kids grew up with my music playing in their houses." Rico, in fact, talks of one survey that says 75-80% of the Filipino population owns a copy of "Kapalaran."
Toward the last part of the conversation, he turns serious. Rico J. Puno considers himself blessed. "I enjoy what I have. I mean, I'm not extremely rich but I'm comfortable. It's all about longevity, kung sino ang pinaka-magtatagal." And he still has that voice. Considering that he smokes, drinks a lot, and stays up late, his voice has not changed one bit. He says he never even had any one of those fancy throat exercises to keep his voice in shape. While performing his beloved classics to Pinoys abroad is always a lucrative gig, there's a part of him that refuses to be a mere museum piece. Rico's next project is to record an album of entirely new material. He groans: "I've been singing the same songs for the past 30 years."
This story first appeared in Metro Him Magazine November-December Issue 2007.