Tom Rapp, the leader of the beloved psych rock outfit Pearls Before Swine and a longtime civil rights lawyer, died in hospice at his home in Melbourne, Florida. He was 70.
A representative for the record label Drag City, reissued Pearls Before Swine’s debut One Nation Underground last year, confirmed the musician’s death.
Rapp was born in North Dakota and grew up in the upper midwest. He received his first guitar at age six. He took to the instrument immediately and in a 1998 interview with The Washington Post, recalled finding a newspaper clipping from a talent show he entered in Rochester, Minnesota when he was eight. Rapp placed third. A young man named Robert Zimmerman came in fifth.
Rapp’s family eventually moved to Florida, and in high school Rapp and his friends Wayne Harley, Lane Lederer and Roger Crissinger formed Pearls Before Swine. The group released six studio albums between 1967 and 1971, starting with One Nation Underground, though the original lineup slowly disbanded after their second LP, Balaclava.
Rapp continued the project with his first wife, Elisabeth, and an array of talented session musicians. In 1969, Pearls Before Swine released These Things Too, notably jumping from the independent label, ESP to Reprise Records. With the backing of a major label, Rapp shared stages with psych rock and folk luminaries like Pink Floyd, Phil Ochs and Dave van Ronk. While Rapp’s group never garnered the same mainstream success as those bands, it was extremely influential. Most notably, Pearls Before Swine’s 1970 song “Rocket Man” inspired Elton John and Bernie Taupin massive 1972 hit of the same name.
Pearls Before Swine released their last album, Beautiful Lies You Could Live In, in 1971, after which Rapp embarked on a short solo career, releasing three albums in two years: 1972’s Familiar Songs and Stardancer and 1973’s Sunforest. Rapp then stepped away from music, returning to college, earning a law degree and carving out a lengthy career as a civil rights lawyer.
In 1997, Rapp briefly returned to music, performing at a small music festival in Providence, and then releasing his final album, A Journal of the Plague Year, in 1999.