Rita Lee exemplifies Brazilian rock ‘n’ roll. Her groundbreaking band, Os Mutantes (the Mutants), was a major force in the introduction of tropicalia, a musical style that began as a reaction to Brazil’s 1964 coup and the dictatorship that followed. Defined by sociopolitical commentary and creative music, tropicalia was the forerunner of the more contemporary musica popular Brasileira (MPB). Os Mutantes’ bizarre and complicated lyrics deliberately confounded the military dictatorship’s censors, allowing them to express political dissent, and their use of electric guitars and effects machines startled musical traditionalists. Although Lee’s solo career has waxed and waned over the years, she staged a comeback in 2001 with the release of 3001, an album that earned her the Latin Grammy Award for Best Rock Album in 2001.
Born Rita Lee Jones on December 31, 1947, in São Paulo, Brazil, she is the daughter of American and Italian immigrants. Her father’s family, which relocated to Brazil soon after the American Civil War, retained many American customs, including speaking English. Her family’s roots in the American South gave her a feeling of kinship with American musical traditions, including Elvis Presley, whose records she received as gifts from American cousins as she was growing up.
As a child Lee took piano lessons from the famous classical pianist Magdalena Tagliaferro. Lee’s desire for musical expression was not satisfied by classical music, however, so she took up drums and then learned to play bass. While attending Lycee Pasteur, a French school in Sao Paulo, she started forming musical groups, forming Tulio’s Trio and the Teenage Singers, a group that performed popular Brazilian and American music. During this time she met the members of a band called the Wooden Faces at a state-sponsored school festival. She joined them and formed some other bands, including one called Six Sided Rockers.
As the teens grew, band members began to split off. By 1965 only brothers Arnaldo and Sergio Baptista and Lee were left from previous lineups. Together they formed the band Os Mutantes, a name based on the science-fiction book, O Planeta dos Mutantes. As a group they performed in any costumes they could find. They built their own instruments including guitars, basses, distortion pedals, and percussion instruments. Each song and performance was an attempt to snub the ruling dictatorship without getting put in jail, killed, or exiled. As Lee described in an interview on the Luaka Bop Records website, “Os Mutantes were a bunch of politically alienated teenagers. At the time we met Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, all we wanted was to have fun with music no matter how heavy the Brazilian dictatorship was.” Lee was primarily the vocalist, but she was determined to be more than just the mouthpiece for the band. In addition to singing, she played keyboards, flute, guitar and composed many of their songs.
Born Rita Lee Jones on December 31, 1947, in São Paulo, Brazil; married Roberto de Carvalho, 1996; children: Beto, Joao, Tui Lee.
Studied classical piano with Magdalena Tagliaferro as a child; learned to play drums and bass in high school; formed the groups Tulio’s Trio and the Teenage Singers; formed Os Mutantes with Arnaldo and Sergio Baptista, 1965; Os Mutantes performed with Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso at a popular music festival that launched the tropicalia movement, 1967; left Os Mutantes to pursue solo career, 1973; toured and recorded with backup band Tutti Frutti, 1974-78; toured and recorded with Roberto de Carvalho, 1982-87; opened for Rolling Stones tour of Brazil, 1995; released Latin Grammy Award-winning 3001, 2001.
Awards: Sharp Electronics, Sharp Music Award for Life-time Achievement, 1997; Latin Grammy Award, Best Rock Album for 3001, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Universal Music Ltda, Rua Said Aiach 305, São Paulo, Brazil. Website —Rita Lee Official Website: http://www.ritalee.com.br.
In 1967 Os Mutantes helped solidify the movement known as tropicalia by performing at a music festival with Gil and Veloso. Supporters of traditional Brazilian music were alarmed and surprised by their new style. As Lee described in her Luaka Bop interview, “I would say that Os Mutantes gave the tropicalia movement a new expansion by using electronic instruments for the first time in the Brazilian music panorama without even worrying about prejudice, facing this struggle like clowns in the middle of the reactionaries.” In 1968 Os Mutantes recorded the seminal work of the tropicalia movement, Tropicalia, with Gil, Veloso, and others involved in the style.
In 1973 Lee left the band, because, as she told Larry Rohter of the New York Times, she was eager to go her own way. “I left because the rest of the band wanted to go in a progressive rock direction…. I felt the rest of the band was becoming more and more foreign influenced, and I was in search of Brazil, Brazil, Brazil.” Throughout the 1970s she performed solo backed by a band called Tutti Frutti. In the late 1970s she met a musician named Roberto de Carvalho; the two collaborated throughout the 1980s, releasing several albums together. Although they were longtime partners and had three sons, Beto, Joao, and Tui Lee, they did not marry.
In 1991 Lee released the first-ever live acoustic album recorded in Brazil, a groundbreaking effort called Bossa ‘n’ Roll in which she abandoned her electric origins and reached back to her Brazilian roots, taking contemporary rock songs and retrofitting them with bossa nova rhythms. The very popular album boosted Lee’s career after she had taken a break in the late 1980s, when personal problems and poor album sales had daunted her. Her popularity continued to grow throughout the 1990s, and in 1995 Mick Jagger asked her to open the Rolling Stones’ tour of Brazil. With Carvalho and her son as her band, Lee agreed. The tour led to yet another fruitful period in Lee’s career, including marriage to Carvalho in 1996. That same year he produced her album Santa Rita de Sampa, which was released in 1997. She received a Sharp Music Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997.
Lee is widely admired in Brazil, as Charles Perrone, coauthor of The Brazilian Sound, told Rohter: “More than anyone else in Brazilian popular music, Rita Lee may represent the modern cosmopolitan big city, the awareness of international popular culture and the inevitable arrival of technology and its transition into popular music and culture.” Her work in Os Mutantes began to make waves in the United States in 1999 when reissues of the group’s early albums were released. Os Mutantes music sounds modern and inspirational to modern ears, even though it was recorded in the late 1960s. Rock musician Beck, who relies heavily on sampling sounds and referencing other styles to create his music, told Rohter, “Hearing Os Mutantes for the first time was one of those revelatory moments you live for as a musician…. I made records like ‘Odelay’ because there was a certain sound and sensibility that I wanted to achieve, and it was eerie to find that they had already done it 30 years ago.”
Os Mutantes, Polydor, 1968; reissued, Omplatten, 1999.
Mutantes, Polydor, 1969; reissued, Omplatten, 1999.
A Divina Comédia Ou Ando Meio Desligado, 1970; reissued, Omplatten, 1999.
Jardim Elétrico, Polydor, 1971.
Hoje É O Primeiro Dia Do Resto Da Sua Vida, Polydor, 1972.
Mutantes E Seus Cometas No País Dos Baurets, Polydor, 1972.
Atrás do Porto Tem Uma Cidade, Phonogram, 1974.
Fruto Proibido, Som Livre, 1975.
Entradas e Bandeiras, Som Livre, 1976.
Refestança-Gilberto Gil e Rita Lee Ao Vivo, Som Livre, 1977.
Babilonia, Som Livre, 1978.
Rita Lee, Som Livre, 1980.
Saúde, Som Livre, 1981.
Bom Bom, Som Livre, 1983.
Rita e Roberto, Som Livre, 1985.
Flerte Fatal, EMI-Odeon, 1987.
Rita Lee & Roberto de Carvalho, EMI-Odeon, 1990.
Bossa ’N Roll, Som Livre, 1991.
Lança Perfume E Outras Manias-Rita Lee The Greatest Hits, EMI-Odeon, 1992.
Rita Lee, Som Livre, 1993.
A Marca da Zorra, Som Livre, 1995.
Santa Rita de Sampa, Polygram, 1997.
Acústico Rita Lee, Polygram, 1998.
3001, Universal Music Brazil, 2000.
Tecnicolor, Universal Music Brazil, 2000.
Aqui, Ali, em Qualquer Lugar, Abril Music, 2001.
Billboard, March 6, 1999.
Daily Variety, October 31, 2001, p. 9.
Gazette (Montreal), August 12, 1999, p. D4.
New York Times, December 17, 1999; April 15, 2001.
Village Voice, June 8, 1999, p. 127.
“Os Mutantes Artist Info—Rita Lee Interview,” Luaka Bop, http://www.luakabop.com/os_mutantes/cmp/rita.html (February 18, 2002).
“Rita Lee,” All Brazilian Music, http://www.allbrazilianmusic.com/en/Artists/Artists.asp?Status=ARTISTA&Nu_Artista=507 (February 18, 2002).
“Still Queen,” Brazzil, http://www.brazzil.com/p46jan01.htm (February 18, 2002).
—Eve M. B. Hermann
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