i skipped kindergarten and landed immediately in prep school at u.s.t. elementary school when pilita corrales bagged the best singer award during the 1st tokyo music festival (tmf) organized by tokyo’s popular music promotion association in 1972. pilita performed george canseco’s stirring ballad “my daughter.” she bested well-known musical artists like paul williams and olivia newton-john. tmf’s succeeding roster of participants and guest artists have included the likes of paul anka, shirley bassey, kate bush, kim carnes, joe cocker, natalie cole, the commodores, rita coolidge, randy crawford, sammy davis jr., al green, israeli superstar ofra haza, jermaine jackson, jackson five, al jarreau, limahl (lead singer of the 1980s pop band kajagoogoo), barry manilow, gilbert o’ sullivan, the pointer sisters, lionel richie, diana ross, frank sinatra, sister sledge ("we are family"), donna summer, the three degrees ("when will i see you again"), vaya con dios (a top belgian band), dionne warwick, andy williams and stevie wonder. not to be confused with the equally prestigious world popular song festival (organized separately by the tokyo-based yamaha music foundation from 1970 to 1989), pilita’s victory at tmf was clearly no mean feat.
immediately upon arrival in manila, pilita landed in newspapers and on television where the local press began dubbing her as “asia’s queen of songs.” and that’s how i got to know more about her. soon, pilita became a permanent fixture on ibc channel 13's "seeing stars with joe quirino." then japan's matsushita corporation, owners of national (now panasonic) electronic appliances, handpicked pilita to endorse quintrix state-of-the-art color t.v. and jetscycle refrigerators. right before going to bed late at night, i would patiently wait for rpn channel 9 to air pilita's t.v. ad where she sang the first few bars of "kapantay ay langit" at eduardo's along roxas boulevard. pilita was then at the height of her popularity as the country's leading female vocalist.
these days, pilita is well-known to t.v. audiences as a comedy actress. she is “mamita” on gma channel 7’s comedy “lagot ka, isusumbong kita” opposite joey marquez, richard gomez, raymart santiago and benjie paras. soon, she will be even more famous as the female judge a la paula abdul in abc channel 5’s philippine idol. younger generations of filipinos are probably oblivious to pilita’s impressive feat as the first filipino winner of an international music festival. nobody seems to remember pilita's distinguished achievements as a recording, live performance and t.v. artist.
nearly fifty years ago, pilita arrived in australia with a shipwrecked troupe of performers. initially, she was the assistant of magician and actor john calvert. calvert had earlier achieved popularity with his long-running magic show in hollywood with edgar bergen, gary cooper, cary grant and danny kaye during world war II. calvert also appeared in a movie with clark gable. later, pilita and calvert formed a tandem that proved to be very popular at the legendary tivoli theatre ("the tiv") on bourke street. "the tiv" was the center of melbourne's glamour, magic and live entertainment long before t.v., cinema, betamax, vhs, vcds, mobile phones, dvds, mp3s, ipods, blogs and laptops took over. it was also the site of pilita's first international success.
as a leading female vocalist from 1958 to 1962, pilita achieved mainstream acceptance and popularity in australia way ahead of newton-john, pat carroll, helen reddy, patsy anne noble, debbie byrne, renee geyer, the moir sisters, colleen hewitt (who made a hit out of "day by day" from godspell), sister janet mead (who did a popular cover version of "the lord's prayer"), marcia hines, samantha sang (who scored a u.s. #1 hit in 1978 with barry and maurice gibb's "emotion" ), kate ceberano (who is actually filipino-hawaiian-australian), tina arena, kylie minogue and delta goodrem. the australian broadcasting corporation (abc) and melbourne's the age recognize pilita as first woman ever to land on top of the australian pop charts in 1958 with "come closer to me."
pilita also performed with international artists like the beatles, bob hope, julie andrews, pat boone (“you light up my life” singer debbie boone’s father) and sammy davis jr. (at caesar’s palace in las vegas) while hosting prizewinning musical-varieties like “an evening with pilita,” “pilita and jackie, ” “ang bagong kampeon” and "tanghalan ng kampeon.” she popularized songs by filipino composers (“a million thanks to you,” “kapantay ay langit,” “ang pipit”) way ahead of many local artists. her renditions of tagalog classics by tito arevalo, george canseco, levi celerio, constancio de guzman, dominador santiago, leopoldo silos, restituto umali and miguel velarde jr. under plaka pilipino and vicor helped pave the way for the mainstream (and not just token or marginal) acceptance of original pilipino music (opm) during the 1970s and the 1980s.
after pilita, filipino artists realized that they can also win festival honors for the country. celeste legaspi won major prizes in world music festivals held in manila (1976, for philip monseratt’s “pusong nagmamahal”), tokyo (1976, also for “pusong nagmamahal”) and seoul (1981, for willy cruz’s “never ever say goodbye”). didith reyes bagged the gold prize during the 1977 tokyo music festival. leah navarro and the manila music machine bagged the bronze prize at tokyo in 1979. the philippines had been luckiest at the seoul popular music festival (1978-1983). winners of the annual metro manila popular music festival (1978-1985) were sent to compete at sejong cultural center. with the exception of lerma de la cruz (who did not win in 1983, in spite of her exceptional rendition of vehnee saturno's "ako'y ako"), filipinos won a slew of prizes in seoul: ryan cayabyab and hajji alejandro for “kay ganda ng ating musika” (grand prix, 1978); freddie aguilar for snaffu rigor's “bulag, pipi at bingi" (best performer, 1979); dero pedero and leah navarro for “isang mundo, isang awit” (bronze, 1980); ananias montano and something special for “babae ka” (bronze, 1981); and jun latonio, tillie moreno, eugene villaluz and louie reyes for “nothing i want more” (grand prix, 1982). in later years, jose mari chan, eugene villaluz and louie reyes, leo valdez, dulce, ivy violan, smokey mountain, regine velasquez, jaya, ryan cayabyab, gines tan, danny tan, vehnee saturno and a few other artists would achieve similar honors in festivals held in canada, china, finland, hong kong, japan, malaysia, the philippines and the united states during the 1980s and the early 1990s.
towards the 21st century, shortage of interest and sponsors caused the demise of many music festivals. the few surviving ones today are mostly national or regional in nature as in the case of san remo (italy) and the annual eurovision contest. gma 7 tried to revive metro pop during the 1990s but antonio barreiro passed away. no one could possibly execute the vision and spirit of music festivals locally the way he did.
gerry matias, one of pilita’s musical directors, happens to be the father of my former student gm matias. when i return to manila, i will probably ask gm to get me pilita's autograph. or i'll drop by pilita’s bar in greenhills and tell her how she fascinated me when i was growing up. one of these days, she ought to be proclaimed national artist. even the city of melbourne has named a street after her in forest hill. and yet, she opted to sing more for her kababayans back home. i will never understand why pilita corrales should not be receiving an honor she truly deserves.
"i'll take romance," pilita's 2nd long playing album in australia (circa 1958)
"this is pilita," pilita's 3rd long playing album in australia (circa 1962)
back cover of "this is pilita"
"speak low," one of pilita's chart-hitting 45" singles under astor records in australia
along the tram line on melbourne's bourke street with doreen ochea