Rita Lee, Brazil’s Queen Of Rock And Os Mutantes Founder Dies Aged 75

The pioneering artist and feminist icon, who sold more than 55 million records during a six-decade career, died at home after a battle with cancer.

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Rita Lee - Photo: Rui M Leal/Getty Images

Rita Lee, the influential Brazilian musician, composer and founder of the trailblazing band Os Mutantes, has died at 75, prompting emotional tributes to the woman often referred to as Brazil’s undisputed “Queen of Rock.”

Lee was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2021.The pioneering artist and feminist icon, who sold an estimated 55 million records during her six-decade career, went into remission last year but died at her home in São Paulo on Monday night, May 8.

“At this moment of profound sadness, the family thanks everyone for their affection and love,” read a message on Lee’s Instagram account, inviting fans to a public wake at the city’s Parque Ibirapuera, one of Latin America’s largest parks.

News of Lee’s death sparked an outpouring of emotion and reverence towards one of the most important figures in contemporary Brazilian music. Brazil’s culture minister, the singer and composer Margareth Menezes, hailed her as a “revolutionary woman.”

“The world has lost one of the most unique and incredible people who ever existed,” one of her sons, João Lee, wrote on social media. “What an intense and spectacular life you had. Admired and loved by so many people. So ahead of your time.”

Rita Lee’s huge domestic following was matched by an army of international fans, reputedly ranging from the Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain to King Charles III.

In 1988, the Daily Mirror reported that during a British embassy banquet in Paris, the then Prince of Wales had asked for a Rita Lee record to be played. When the appropriate LP found its way on to the turntable, the future king “already knew the words by heart,” the British newspaper claimed.

Rita Lee Jones de Carvalho’s first forays into the world of music did little to hint at the stardom to come. As a young girl born in São Paulo to an American father and a Brazilian mother, she took classical piano lessons but, according to one newspaper report, suffered from stage fright and wet herself during one audition.

Rather than retreat from performing, however, Rita Lee threw herself into music, founding the seminal psychedelic-rock group Os Mutantes in 1966 with Arnaldo Batista and Sérgio Dias.

“[The group] has come from another planet to take over the world,” the singer-songwriter declared in her first interview with the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

The subversive, left-field outfit became a key part of Brazil’s Tropicália movement which, spearheaded by composers Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé and Gilberto Gil, blended traditional Brazilian music with electric instruments and foreign influences

“The bottom line is that we were light years ahead of everyone else,” Rita Lee remembered in a 2001 interview with the New York Times.

An immediate sensation in Brazil, it took Os Mutantes several decades to find international fame and recognition – but it did arrive eventually. Kurt Cobain met the group during a 1993 trip to Brazil, hailing their “revolutionary” sound and the “guts” they showed producing such daring music during the 1964-85 military dictatorship.

Lee left Os Mutantes in 1972 but not before helping produce a staggering catalogue of classics including “Balada do Louco, ” “Baby” and “Ando Meio Desligado.”

As a solo artist, Lee went on to record a succession of equally successful and irreverent hits such as “Amor e Sexo” and “Lança Perfume.” Her more than 40 albums included a 2001 bossa nova-infused homage to The Beatles called Here, There and Everywhere.

In her 2016 autobiography, Rita Lee wrote what she hoped would be her epitaph. “She was never a good example,” she wrote. “But she was a good person.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sidney Falcão

    May 20, 2023 at 4:08 pm

    Brazilian rock lost its greatest female representation, which was Rita Lee. For those who are not from Brazil and are unfamiliar with Rita’s work, I recommend listening to the album “Fruito Proibido”, released in 1975, with Rita Lee & Tutti Frutti. This album is a classic of Brazilian rock, and owes nothing to the American and British rock albums of the time. “Forbidden Fruit” was produced by Andy Mills, a professional who had previously worked with Alice Cooper.

    Mills ended up in Brazil coming here with Cooper when he came to play a series of shows here in 1974. Cooper and his band returned to the United States, but Mills preferred to settle down here in Brazil.

    From the album “Fruto Proibido”, songs like “Agora Só Falta Você”, “Esse Tal de Roque Enrow” (the spelling was recorded just like that “Enrow”) and the ballad “Ovelha Negra”.

    No, it wasn’t “supposedly”, Kurt Cobain really had an admiration for Mutantes. There is video of an interview with Cobain commenting on the Mutantes. When Nirvana came to Brazil, in 1993, Cobain tried to contact Arnaldo Baptista, but for some reason, perhaps because Arnaldo has had health problems for some time and was reclusive, the meeting was not possible.

    The fact that the international music press focuses on the American and European music market ends up ignoring these curious details like the one about Kurt Cobain and Mutantes, which take place outside the United States/Europe axis, and fail to know interesting artists.

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