When legendary Brazilian rocker Rita Lee was admitted to a São Paulo hospital for exhaustion in July, her fans feared the worst. But she says the event was foreshadowed long ago.
"During the Seventies, I wrote a song with [The Alchemist author] Paulo Coelho called öSuperestafa' [öSuperstress'], so feeling exhausted after weeks on the road is really nothing new to me," says Lee. "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 often been the subject of much speculative press 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.
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Lee began her musical career in the Sixties with the 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, the band backed up tropicália pioneer Gilberto Gil at the International Music Festival, and stirred up controversy by plugging in. It was the first time an electric band had played at the Brazilian event, causing purists to react like folkies did when Bob Dylan performed at the Newport Music Festival two years earlier. Lee 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 Tropicália: Ou Panis Et Circensis, the landmark compilation conceived by Gil and Caetano Veloso as a Brazilian response to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and a symbol of the burgeoning tropicália movement of that time. 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 "Babilônia."
In 1976 she met guitarist Roberto de Carvalho, who would become her songwriting partner and soul mate. They collaborated on several songs throughout the Eighties, the most successful time of her career. During that decade, she was considered to be the 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"), all song titles that would serve as a harbinger in her life.
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After the failure of 1991's Rita e Roberto, Lee 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 herself, her guitar, and nephew Alexandre Fontanetti on lead guitar. This 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 Lee open for them. She quickly assembled a band with son Beto, Tutti-Frutti-era bassist Lee Marcucci, and Carvalho, who had been living in Miami at the time. The former couple eventually reconciled, and after the release of the tour album, Lee and Carvalho legally married at the end of 1995.
Every now and then, Lee's older songs return in the voices of younger singers. In 2002, Daniela Mercury recorded a hit version of "Mutante;" more recently, Latin Grammy winner Maria Rita included two of Lee's songs on her self-titled debut.
But Lee is no anachronism. On her latest release, Balacobaco (a title that roughly translates as A Great Party), Lee 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, laid-back pop, and Lee's raucous vocals, telling her fans that she ain't goin' nowhere.