Brazilian “Queen of Rock” Rita Lee Jones passes away at 75

Thursday 11 May 2023

Rita Lee Jones, also known as Rita Lee, passed away on Monday evening at her home in Sao Paulo at the age of 75. A statement was posted on her official Instagram account, but her cause of death was not immediately disclosed. Lee had retired from stage performances in the early 2010s due to physical frailty and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2021. However, her son announced a year later that she had defeated the illness.

Lee had a career spanning six decades, leaving a lasting mark on Brazilian society with her irreverence, creativity, and compositions containing messages that helped introduce feminism. She also candidly addressed her struggles with drug abuse. Despite thinking of 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. Dozens of her songs were also featured in widely watched telenovelas in Latin America, with Globo using her rendition of the song “Poison Weed” (Poison Ivy) in three of its programs.

Lee was praised for her versatility as a singer and songwriter, playing at least five instruments, including drums, guitar, piano, harmonica, and autoharp. She was also one of the first Brazilian musicians to use electric guitar. Her popularity extended beyond Brazil, and 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) in 1966. Colours, creativity, 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.

Lee 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) and Lança Perfume (Spray Perfume), an ode to unbridled hedonism. Later in life, she became a vegan and animal rights activist.

In her autobiography published in 2016, she didn’t shy away from describing the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, referring to herself as a “rebel” and “hippie communist.” She 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.

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. A public wake was 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 de 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.