Rita Lee Jones, Brazil’s million-selling “Queen of Rock” who gained an international following through her colorful and candid style and such hits as Ovelha Negra, Mania de Você and Now Only Missing You, has died at 75. Otherwise known as Rita Lee, she died at her home in Sao Paulo on Monday evening, according to a statement posted to her official Instagram account.
With a career spanning six decades, the Sao Paulo native left a lasting mark with her irreverence, creativity and compositions containing messages that helped introduce Brazilian society to feminism, while also candidly addressing her struggles with drug abuse.
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 programs.
“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 realized 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 electric guitar.
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 Lança Perfume and considered her his favorite singer. She won a Latin Grammy in the Best Portuguese Language Album category in 2001, for her album 3001.
Rita Lee rose to fame with the group Os Mutantes (The Mutants), starting in 1966. Colors and creativity, as well as irony and irreverence, were Lee’s trademarks from the start, evident in the flamboyant costumes she performed in her shows. By the mid-1970s, after selling 200,000 copies of the album Forbidden Fruit, Lee began to be called the “queen of rock” on the music scene. Hits on Forbidden Fruit include Now Only Missing You and Ovelha Negra, long played on radio stations and Brazilian soap operas.
In an interview with the music website I Have More Records Than Friends! in 2017, Lulu Santos, judge of the Brazilian version of The Voice, recalled seeing Rita Lee play autoharp at a concert.
“She brought that thing on stage, in those clothes... it was completely mythological,” the musician said. “There really is a lineage of ‘girls’ tied to rock in Brazil, of which she is a legitimate representative. But I see her as an element that distances herself from the clichés of rock.” She, from her feminine point of view, sees the clumsiness of the worn-out cliché of the male rocker, the one who plays with his legs open. She saw right through him.”
She was one of the first public figures in Brazil to popularize feminist themes, such as infusing the lyrics of her 1979 song Mania de Voce (Mania for You) with female sexuality and pleasure. Similar songs followed, such as Amor e Sexo (Love and Sex) which contrasted the two in detail and Lança Perfume (Spray Perfume), an ode to unbridled hedonism.
Later in life, she became a vegan and animal rights activist. For decades, she kept her hair bright red and often wore matching lenses, a popular look that she discarded in recent years as she allowed her gray to grow out. She resolved in 2015 to reinvent herself as a white butterfly.
In her autobiography, published the following year, she didn’t shy from describing the sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of a man who had come to fix her mother’s sewing machine.
She also referred to herself as a “rebel” and “hippie communist,” and wrote of sneaking out the windows of her house as a teenager to play, being arrested during the dictatorship for possession of marijuana, and her multiple stints in rehab clinics for drugs and alcohol.
“I recognize that my best songs were written in an altered state, and my worst too. I only regret my delay in realizing that the ‘medicine’ had long since expired,” she wrote. “My generation suffered the claustrophobia of a brutal dictatorship, and using drugs was a way to breathe airs of freedom.”
In an interview with the television program Fantastico in 2020, she explained that physical frailty had prompted her to leave the stage eight years earlier.
“Getting old, for me, was a surprise, because I’ve never been old in my life,” she told the show. “I was left wanting to live my old age away from the stage, without sharing it with the public.”
A public wake will be held at the planetarium in Sao Paulo on May 10, according to the Instagram post.
She is survived by her three children and her husband, musician Roberto do Carvalho, with whom she shared a 44-year musical partnership. In 2021, they released a new song, Change, together, and a remix of some of the singer’s biggest hits.
Years before, she imagined her future death, as if prophesying: “I will be in heaven,” she wrote, “with my soul present playing my autoharp and singing to God, ‘Thank you, Lord, finally sedated.’ Epitaph: She was never a good example, but she was good people.”
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