OPM icon Claire De la Fuente: 'I was there at the right place at the right time'

Mario Dumaual, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 01 2021 01:16 PM | Updated as of Apr 01 2021 03:53 PM

MANILA -- It is no surprise that "Sayang" has become an earworm or LSS (last song syndrome) this Lenten break with the shocking passing of Claire de la Fuente, a hugely popular OPM queen who left an indelible mark in popular music. 

In her lifetime, Claire assumed many personas. 

She was the Karen Carpenter of the Philippines but she was also a business maven - managing a restaurant chain, a bus franchise, clothing line and salon, among others. At one point she even promoted a hair grower tonic and became a doctor of naturopathic medicine in 2016. 

Claire’s transformation continued until the last few months, as a mother who valiantly defended the innocence of her son who was unfairly embroiled in a controversial homicide case. 

Through it all, Clarita Crisostomo de la Fuente de Guzman, held on to her core being as a singer beloved by the public. 

"Iba 'yung nandun ka na sa history ng OPM, nakatatak ka na and that’s the legacy I’m leaving behind, 'yan ang gusto kong tayuan," she said in a past interview. "I am grateful that I was one of those given an opportunity, ako pa 'yung nagkaroon ng ‘legendary’ status like my other colleagues."

OPM icon Claire De la Fuente: 'I was there at the right place at the right time' 1

She personally chose her showbiz name "Claire" when she was in her mid teens in the 1970s at the height of the Manila Sound. After George Canseco discovered her in a University of the East singing contest singing the Carpenters song "Love Me for What I Am", she became a national sensation with her recording of a cigarette commercial which Canseco helped facilitate. Her soothing singing of “there’s a light of hope when you light a hope...” captivated the public. 

It was not smooth sailing though for de la Fuente. Her initial recordings, "This Girl Has Turned into a Woman" and "Take My Hand For Awhile" with Vicor did not take off, recalled former recording executive Aster Amoyo. 

She moved to Dyna Records where she recorded the monster hit “Sayang”, originally a Malaysian composition with Tagalog lyrics by Marilyn Villapando. “For a time, it held the record as the biggest selling album in the Philippines,” de la Fuente recounted. 

Veteran recording producer Ramon Chuaying who was affiliated with Dyna Records told ABS-CBN News that the combination of lyrics, melody and Claire’s Karen Carpenter-like voice propelled “Sayang” to the top of the music charts. 

But more than these factors, de la Fuente believed she was at the right place at the right time. “Sobrang aggressive ng OPM nuon. Imagine at that time, panahon ni Marcos, mandatory to play on radio four OPM songs in an hour. Ang laki ng airwaves namin. Maswerte kami!” 

OPM icon Claire De la Fuente: 'I was there at the right place at the right time' 2

Hit after hit, de la Fuente was acclaimed as a jukebox queen alongside Didith Reyes, Imelda Papin and later Eva Eugenio. 

"Lahat ng album ko double platinum," de la Fuente said, noting how "Sayang" eclipsed her other big hits. 

"Through time, sa 'Sayang' talaga ako naalala more than my other hits like 'Minsan-minsan', 'Luha', 'Nangingiti ang Puso Ko', 'Nakaw na Pag-ibig', 'Ikaw ang Simula' at iba pa.”

With her marriage to Boy de Guzman, de la Fuente retreated to the business world, raising their two sons and continuing her education in business management. She also took pride in her food and restaurant business which she initially put up at the Macapagal Avenue Pasay City seaside.

Despite several financial disputes and other challenges in her bus franchise business, de la Fuente soldiered on. After she was widowed in 2006, she returned to recording with her much talked about collaboration with the idol of her youth, Richard Carpenter, in her Viva Records released international album.

It was the fulfillment of a long time dream, de la Fuente told ABS-CBN News in 2008, citing Carpenter’s recognition of her contralto voice similar to his late sister Karen. De la Fuente also sang Richard’s composition "Something in Your Eyes", which Karen was supposed to record shortly before her demise in 1983. De la Fuente also recorded “The Christmas Song" with her idol Michael Bolton on 2009 in her Christmas album, an experience she treasured that she supposedly preserved the two dozen pink roses Bolton gave her.

OPM icon Claire De la Fuente: 'I was there at the right place at the right time' 3

Nothing seemingly fazed de la Fuente even with her conviction in a tax revenue case which was still on appeal before she passed away.

In their tribute, her co jukebox queens Papin and Eugenio expressed their amazement at de la Fuentes’ strength and her ability to rise up over difficulties. 

“Siya ang pinakamalakas ang loob sa aming tatlo, matapang at parang kayang-kaya niya lahat,” Papin said. 

Eugenio said de la Fuente was a source of strength for her in her down moments. “Claire was a good friend and strong willed woman who has full command of her life, family and business.” 

Time and again the trio of jukebox queens regaled audiences in many long running concert series with other OPM icons. Rico Puno jokingly called them “formalin beauties”, Eugenio recounted. But she, along with Papin and de la Fuente just laughed off the late Puno’s sometimes brutal sense of humor. 

The most essential part of their career, de la Fuente told ABS-CBN News was their longevity. "Even during the years I was not active, people remembered, the music stayed on and people always looked for us and wanted to hear our songs," she said. 

Up to the very end, de la Fuente had a good run even if she struggled to take on a new crusade as defender of the rights of her son, Gigo, who she said was unjustly implicated in the sensational Dacera case. "I'll see this through up to the very end," she told this author in February this year. No "sayang", nothing was wasted in the life of Claire de la Fuente. 

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