Music News

Rita Rising

When legendary Brazilian rocker Rita Lee was admitted to a São Paulo hospital for exhaustion last July, her fans feared the worst. But, according to Lee, the event was foreshadowed long ago.

"During the '70s, I wrote a song with [The Alchemist author] Paulo Coelho called 'Superestafa' (Superstress), so feeling exhausted after weeks on the road is really nothing new to me," she says. "My health is fine now, and I have no plans to be hanging out at the cemetery for the time being, although some members of the Brazilian press would love that to happen."

Indeed, Lee has been the subject of much speculation about drug-related problems and her ailing health, but the flame-haired 57-year-old's career has been as colorful as her personality, and she is a gregarious host of controversy.

Lee began her musical career in the '60s with the Brazilian psych rockers Os Mutantes, a band that experimented with distortion, feedback, and obscure sounds while still teetering on the edge of quirky Brazilian pop. In 1967, with the help of Tropicalia pioneer Gilberto Gil, the band played the International Music Festival and stirred up controversy by plugging in. It was the first time an electric band had played at that festival, causing purists to react like folkies did when Bob Dylan played his electric set at the Newport Music Festival two years earlier. Rita only added to the hubbub by appearing on stage in a wedding gown and a faux pregnant belly.

The following year, Os Mutantes was featured on Tropicalia, the landmark album conceived by Gil and Caetano Veloso that was Brazil's response to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and a symbol of the burgeoning Tropicalia movement. Rita's relationship with the band, albeit highly productive, didn't last. Internal disputes forced her out of the group, and in 1974 she formed her own band, Tutti-Frutti, and embarked on a solo career that produced hits such as "Mamãe Natureza"(Mother Nature), "Ovelha Negra"(Black Sheep), and "Babilonia."

In 1976, she met guitarist Roberto de Carvalho, who would become her song-writing partner and lifelong soul mate. They collaborated on several songs through the '80s, which would prove to be the most successful years of her career. During that decade she was informally named "Queen of Rock and Roll" in Brazil. Hits from that era included "Lança Perfume"(an allusion to a popular but illegal ether and perfume narcotic cocktail used in Carnaval parties), "On the Rocks," and "Desculpe o Auê ("Sorry for the Fight"). Once again, those song titles would serve as harbingers.

After the failure of 1991's Rita e Roberto, she took a break from her musical partnership (the romantic relationship would soon go on hiatus as well) and embarked on a successful acoustic tour that featured only Lee, her guitar, and the accompaniment of nephew Alexandre Fontanetti on guitar and vocals. The tour led to the release of 1992's Rita Lee em Bossa n' Roll. She recorded another album in 1993, but her life was in turmoil, and a deep depression led to a near-fatal tranquilizer overdose.

Then, destiny decided to interfere. In 1994, the Rolling Stones announced their first-ever Brazilian tour, and friend and admirer Mick Jagger insisted that Rita open for them. Lee quickly assembled a band, which featured son Beto Lee, Tutti-Frutti era bassist Lee Marcucci, and Roberto de Carvalho, who had been living in Miami at the time. She eventually reconciled with Carvalho, and after the release of the tour album, they were legally married (they had lived together for years) at the end of 1995.

Every now and then, Lee's older songs return in the voices of younger singers. In 2002, Daniela Mercury covered "Mutante" and made it a hit in her own right. More recently, Latin Grammy Award-winner Maria Rita included two of Lee's songs on her self-titled debut. On her latest release, Balacobaco (a title that means something like "a great party"), she blends new songs penned by herself and Carvalho with original tunes by Tribalistas, Moacyr Franco, and a cute bossa nova cover of the classic "Over the Rainbow." The album bursts with rock fervor and laid-back pop, layered with Lee's raucous vocals -- a testament to her fans that she ain't goin' nowhere. On this tour, she says, she plans to play everything "from Mutantes to Balacobaco, going through the greatest hits. I hope that the Brazilians who live in the U.S. have missed spending a few minutes with me."

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