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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Rita Lee, Brazil’s Queen of Rock, dies at 75

Rita Lee performing in 1988. She got her start with the band Os Mutantes before finding success as a solo artist, selling a reported 55 million records over a career that stretched over half a century.

By Alex Williams

Rita Lee, a convention-flouting titan of Brazilian music who emerged with seminal experimental band Os Mutantes and went on to become a solo star known widely as her country’s Queen of Rock, died May 8 at her home in Sao Paulo. She was 75.

Her death was announced in a statement posted on her Instagram account. She had been receiving treatments for lung cancer, which she learned she had in 2021.

With Os Mutantes, Lee was a product of the tropicália movement (also known as tropicalismo), an anti-authoritarian Brazilian cultural flowering that started in the late 1960s. She ultimately became a commercial powerhouse, selling a reported 55 million records over a career that stretched over a half-century.

As a solo artist, she churned out a string of hits in the 1970s — among them “Ovelha Negra” (“Black Sheep”) and “Mania de Você” (“Mania for You”) — that became enduring classics. She was accompanied by the band Tutti Frutti in her early years, and later, by her husband, Roberto de Carvalho.

In 2001, Lee took home a Latin Grammy Award for best Portuguese-language rock or alternative album, for “3001.”

Her reach was global. Kurt Cobain, David Byrne and Beck are among the many musical innovators who hailed the subversive oeuvre of Os Mutantes. In 1988, King Charles III, then the Prince of Wales, requested one of her records for a dance at a banquet at the British Embassy in Paris. He was said to know the words “by heart,” according to The Daily Mirror.

But she was no pop confection. After a troubled and rebellious youth, she was arrested in 1976 for marijuana possession and held up as a cautionary tale by Brazil’s military dictatorship. She also made multiple trips to treatment facilities for drug and alcohol use.

Irreverent and candid, Lee carried herself with rock-star swagger. (After her cancer diagnosis, the mordant Lee nicknamed her tumor Jair, a jab at Brazil’s incendiary president at the time, Jair Bolsonaro.)

As one of the few female rockers to play guitar onstage in the 1960s and as a solo artist who explored sexuality from a woman’s point of view, Lee was hailed as a feminist hero. When informed of Lee’s death during a Senate commission hearing, Brazil’s cultural minister, singer Margareth Menezes, was visibly overcome with emotion, describing Lee as a “revolutionary woman.”

Lee herself was a little more blunt about her triumphs.

“When we talk about feminism and all these things, I don’t really have the theory of it. I’m more of the action,” Lee said in a 2017 television interview. “They used to say that women couldn’t wear long pants. Huh? Yes, we can, I wore mine. They used to say that women couldn’t play rock. I would get my ovaries, my uterus, I’d play my rock ’n’ roll.”

Rita Lee Jones was born Dec. 31, 1947, in Sao Paulo, the youngest of three daughters of Charles Jones, an American-born dentist descended from Confederates who fled to Brazil after the Civil War (Rita’s middle name was inspired by Gen. Robert E. Lee), and Romilda Padula, a pianist.

When she was a child, Lee recounted in “Rita Lee: Uma Autobiografia” (2016), a sewing machine repairman sexually abused her in her home, a traumatic experience that fueled her rebellious spirt.

Musically inclined, she played in several groups as a teenager and, despite her early stage fright, formed Os Mutantes (The Mutants) with brothers Arnaldo and Sérgio Dias Baptista in 1966. In an early interview, she claimed that the band, whose name was inspired by a science fiction book called “O Planeta dos Mutantes” (“The Planet of the Mutants”), had “come from another planet to take over the world.”

The band was to Sao Paulo “what the Grateful Dead were to San Francisco, the Velvet Underground to New York or Nirvana to Seattle,” Larry Rohter of The New York Times wrote during a comeback tour in 2007.

In terms of psychedelic trappings and extravagant plumage, the band was far more Dead than Velvets, although it took the free-for-all spirit of the ’60s to absurdist levels, mixing American and British psychedelia with Brazilian genres such as bossa nova, and adding electronic experimentalism and a prankster sensibility that served as a pointed rebuke to Brazil’s authoritarian climate.

Os Mutantes made its mark backing Gilberto Gil at the Festival of Brazilian Popular Music in 1967. The next year, the band appeared on the groundbreaking compilation album “Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circenses,” featuring songs by Gil, Caetano Veloso and other leading lights of the movement.

The band’s debut album, released that same year, was sprinkled with environmental sounds, jagged guitar riffs. and other sonic detritus. It was, Rolling Stone wrote when including it in a 2013 roundup of the greatest stoner albums of all time, one of the late 1960s’ “most mischievous head trips, which is saying something.”

Lee left the band to pursue a solo career after it released its fifth album, “E Seus Cometas No Pais Do Baurets” (“Mutants and Their Comets in the Country of Weed”), in 1972. She retreated from the limelight after her final studio effort, “Reza” (“Prayer”), in 2012, although she did release a new song, “Change,” with her husband and producer Gui Boratto in 2021.

She is survived by her husband; her sons, Beto, João and Antônio; and two grandchildren. Her first marriage, to Arnaldo Baptista of Os Mutantes, ended in divorce in 1972.

A vegan and animal welfare activist, the onetime countercultural firebrand spent much of her final years “confined to my den, in a little house in the middle of the woods surrounded by animals and plants,” only going out shopping or to the dentist, she wrote in a 2020 essay for Brazilian magazine Veja.

“Today,” she added, “I do everything over the internet and pray I don’t break a tooth.”

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