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Goodbye, Rico J.

08 November 2018

By Daisy Catherine L. Mandap

Just this once, I will go showbiz, and pay tribute to Rico J. Puno, the “Total Entertainer” and OPM legend who passed on recently, 15 years after he enthralled thousands of Filipinos in Hong Kong through two memorable concerts many remember to this day.

I thought of inviting Rico J to be the performer at the yearly charity ball of the Philippine Association of Hong Kong when I became chair in 2003. I was familiar with his songs, which were very popular in the ‘80s, and many members of PAHK would surely remember them as well. But this was about two decades later, and I wasn’t sure if he could still deliver.

Here I am, singing at the Philippine Association of Hong Kong Ball in 2003 with Rico J. Puno, Marco Sison and Nonoy Zuniga. The inimitable Rico J called me - being chair at the time - to the stage to sing "Bakit Ngayon Ka Lang" with them. 

Luckily, a friend told me that Rico J was attempting to revive his long-dormant career, and had teamed up with his friends and contemporaries Hajji Alejandro, Marco Sison, Rey Valera and Nonoy Zuniga, to draw in the crowds at a concert in Araneta Coliseum. I decided to watch them perform, and was completely won over.

On to October that year, and we at PAHK were jittery because it was the year of SARS, and people were hardly in the mood for celebrating. The yearly Philippine Independence Day ball in June had to be shelved, because people were still in morbid fear of the deadly disease that took hold of the city just one or two months earlier.

But we had a contract to honor, and at least 300 dinner tickets to sell. And so we bravely plunged ahead.

It turned out we had nothing to fear for Rico J was in control. From the time he, Marco and Nonoy took to the stage, it was clear that the concert was going to be fun, and memorable.

But I still had qualms. Having heard him crack risqué jokes at the Araneta I was scared he would turn off some people at the Ball, and so asked him to tone them down. He promised, but obviously found it difficult keeping his end of the bargain.

Again, trust Rico to charm his way out of the most difficult spot, or coax the laughter out of the most staid guest.

He made one of his memorable quips soon after he called me to the stage to sing impromptu with them. Seeing me upclose, he said something like, “Tingnan mo nga, may asim pa pala ang chairman ninyo”. That cracked up everyone, including my husband, even if it was the first time we’d heard of that term.

Throughout the night, he kept referring to the comparatively low talent fee the association paid for the three of them, which I secured with help from his and Marco’s manager, my friend Norma Japitana. SARS put us in dire straits and we considered ourselves lucky to have even put the show together.

“We’re having fun kahit walang bayad” was what he kept saying. But it was obviously just a joke, as the three of them, with him leading, gave us a full 11/2-hour, fun-filled concert. To many of us longtime residents in Hong Kong, that performance will remain as the one of the best ever shows to be staged here.

The next day, the three of them were mobbed in Chater Garden by about 10,000 adoring OFWs, many of whom grew up singing their songs, particularly Rico J’s hits, like the Filipino rendition of The Way We Were (“namamasyal pa sa Luneta ng walang pera...”).

All three were obviously energized by the adulation, and gave back in turn, by singing for as long as the crowd wanted them to. Rico J surprised us when, in an uncharacteristically solemn way, thanked us for bringing them to HK to sing for our OFWs. He was with his kids then, and he said it was the first time they saw him getting mobbed by fans, as they were too young, or were not even born yet, when he was at the height of his career.

Then he proceeded to bowl us over when he sang “My Prayer” with his eldest daughter, Tosca Camille. It was a performance to remember. Rico J was a true artist and singer, in a class of his own.

One other thing that stood out was his humility. He mingled with everyone in the community, and even ate our leftovers when he joined us for a late lunch just before his Chater concert. There was no conceit in him, just a genuine desire to please and do what he loved the most, which was singing, and entertaining.

Goodbye, Rico J. You will always be remembered for your wonderful voice, your gift of gab, and your selfless sharing of those talents. RIP.

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