To speak of Pilita Corrales in cheap, recycled platitudes would be to minimize her art. Showbiz parlance is partly to blame, of course. All this “Asia’s Queen of Song” business doesn’t help move the needle of public opinion on her work any more than rattling off the names of her former lovers and popular children does.

The one Pilita cliché I acquiesce to (and how could you not?) is the typical visual of her backbend stance: sveltely arched, tangled mic in hand, chin pointed skyward. And the reason it endures is because, beyond being iconic, it’s also representative of the struggles of womanhood and femininity.

Corrales had a leg up in life, for sure, being a Cebuana-mestiza of well-to-do provenance. But it’s hard not to marvel now at how she barely made a dent at home, and even more baffling to note how she was shipped off to a finishing school in Spain to finesse her chops — that’s what you did at those places in those days — as though bootcamp trumped hitting the road in matters like this (i.e. finessing one’s chops).

Of course, all of this is gratuitous guesswork now. Because what matters is she somehow found herself in Australia, an unlikely darling of local radio after her Spanish-language single “Acércate Más (Come Closer to Me)” catapulted her to top-chanteuse status in 1959. 

The single — an early testament to her sure-footed timbre and sensuous vibrato — was also the inaugural release (along with A-side “Speak Low”) of the now-defunct Australian label Astor Records, a manufacturer-distributor entity which landed itself an unlikely hit long before they pressed records by Petula Clark and The Kinks.  

Her ascent wasn’t overnight. As Fil-Aussie online magazine PhilTimes reports, it was Corrales’ chance meeting with American actor and magician John Calvert that would get the ball rolling. Joining the latter’s traveling yacht troupe, she was first introduced as a “magician’s assistant,” but it was clear her own magic lay elsewhere. 

The late-‘50s/early‘60s Astor run — Pilita Tells the Story of Love, I’ll Take Romance, This is Pilita, Pilita Tells the Story of Love — was so successful they named a street in Victoria after her. Her music was veritable kin to the tunes of Doris Day, Peggy Lee, and Shirley Bassey: a patent playfulness countered with an unmistakable depth, a well-worn technicality spun with a sense of abandon.  

But while validation overseas is a sweet thing, her as-yet-forthcoming homecoming will bring forth a reinvention. 

Having proven her mettle abroad — on top of her music, she was also beloved on Australian television — she sought to replicate these successes in Manila by 1963. And this she did swimmingly: a stint singing and playing guitar on radio show La Taverna over DZPI; live stage appearances at the fabled Manila Grand Opera House; and, finally, television gigs like Seeing Stars with Joe Quirino and her very own Your Evening with Pilita

Needless to say, Corrales’ star was secured. 

By 1963, she would record the first of her many signature numbers, “A Million Thanks to You,” a sprawling showstopper of a ballad that’s like a knife to the gut. By 1966, she would even lead a bevy of support acts to open for The Beatles at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.  

Pilita’s varied musicality speaks to her character, and I feel this is also telling of the kind of role model that she is: malleable but never intractable, welcoming but not a pushover, with a sense of wanderlust but also a tethered-ness to home. 

There’s the melodrama of her Filipino love songs, chief among them George Canseco’s “Kapantay ang Langit,” whose making apparently became a grammar and pronunciation crash course for Corrales in Filipino. “It’s a song for all occasions and for everybody. You can sing it to your mother, grandmother, children. I was lucky to record the song,” she tells ABS-CBN News in a 2021 online feature. 

When she became comfortable enough to do more challenging, arguably out-of-character material, she would cut numbers like the Levi Celerio-penned folk-novelty favorite “Ang Pipit” with surprising efficacy and aplomb. When she interprets material like Visayan-language classic “Matud Nila,” meanwhile, Corrales lends it the ring of a comforting conversation. When you hear her croon on “Dahil Sa ‘Yo” or “Saan Ka Man Naroroon,” you are both transformed and transported.  

The hits would ensure that she remains part of the standards rotation; her constant appearances on-screen would guarantee that her glimmer doesn’t dim; and her periodic gigging would remind audiences that classics need not be tied to a few calendar years. 

When all is said and done, Pilita Corrales doesn’t need PR speak to make the listener take heed. Her work can do that, easily.

This story originally appeared in Billboard Philippines’ special Women in Music issue dated March 22, 2024.