Renowned Brazilian rock singer and songwriter Rita Lee, an icon of the Tropicalia artistic movement, has died after a two-year battle with lung cancer, her family said on Tuesday. She was 75.
“We announce the death of Rita Lee at her home in Sao Paulo late last night, surrounded by all the love of her family, as she always wanted,” a statement posted on the singer’s Instagram account said, inviting the public to her wake on Wednesday.
Her death brought an outpouring of tributes from artists, politicians and celebrities who cheered her trailblazing role in Brazilian rock.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called her “an artist ahead of her time” and “one of the greatest and most brilliant names in Brazilian music”.
Rita Lee Jones de Carvalho was born on December 31, 1947, in Sao Paulo, to a dentist of United States descent and a Brazilian pianist with Italian ancestry.
She was central to Brazil’s politically charged Tropicalia movement, which emerged in defiance of a military dictatorship starting in 1964, and her work at the time was often censored.
Rita Lee Jones é um dos maiores e mais geniais nomes da música brasileira. Cantora, compositora, atriz e multiinstrumentista. Uma artista a frente do seu tempo. Julgava inapropriado o título de rainha do rock, mas o apelido faz jus a sua trajetória.
Rita ajudou a transformar a…
— Lula (@LulaOficial) May 9, 2023
With more than 20 albums recorded and 55 million records sold, her songs touched on issues related to feminism and sex in an era when such issues were taboo.
Although she regarded her voice as “weak and a little out of tune”, like a sparrow’s, she enjoyed a long run of top-selling albums, including Rita Lee and Rita Lee & Roberto de Carvalho, and dozens of her songs were featured in widely watched telenovelas in Latin America.
The behemoth television network Globo used her rendition of the song Poison Weed (Poison Ivy) in three of its programmes.
“I was not born to get married and wash underwear. I wanted the same freedom as the boys who used to play in the street with their toy cars,” she told the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone in 2008.
“When I got into music, I realised that the ‘machos’ reigned absolute, even more in rock music. ‘Wow’, I said, ‘this is where I’m going to let my fangs out and, literally, give them a hard time.’”
She was a singer and songwriter praised for her versatility, playing at least five instruments: drums, guitar, piano, harmonica and autoharp. She was also one of the first Brazilian musicians to use an electric guitar.
Lee gained fame in the 1960s with the band Os Mutantes, formed with Arnaldo Baptista and Sergio Dias, playing alongside legends of Brazilian pop music such as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso to international acclaim.
Kicked out of Os Mutantes by Baptista, whom she had been married to, for supposed artistic differences, Lee played with the band Tutti Frutti in the 1970s.
That band broke up towards the end of the decade, leading Lee to start her solo career, and she played often with her husband Roberto de Carvalho, the father of her three children.
Eventually, her popularity extended beyond Brazil.
She performed in Portugal, England, Spain, France and Germany. In 1988, the British newspaper Daily Mirror revealed that then-Prince Charles admired her song Lanca Perfume and considered her his favourite singer.
She won a Latin Grammy in the Best Portuguese Language Album category in 2001, for her album, 3001.
Lee was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2021 and had been undergoing treatment since then.
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