Tom Rapp, Pearls Before Swine Leader, Dead at 70

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Tom Rapp as pictured on his debut solo album

Although they just scraped onto the very bottom of the Billboard chart once, in 1969, Pearls Before Swine is fondly remembered by many aficionados of folk-rock, psychedelic and avant-garde rock of the ’60s and early ’70s. The leader of that band, Tom Rapp, died in Florida on Feb. 11, of pelvic cancer. Rapp was 70.

Born March 8, 1947, in Bottineau, N.D., Thomas Dale Rapp learned guitar during his childhood. His family moved several times and after settling in Florida Rapp formed Pearls Before Swine in 1965. Signed to the ESP-Disk label, which served as a home base for numerous eclectic artists, the band, which featured Rapp as vocalist, guitarist and chief songwriter, released its debut album, One Nation Underground, in 1967. The album, whose front cover came from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch titled “Garden of Earthly Delights,” sold fairly well, mostly due to word of mouth among fans of the new psychedelic sound, and ultimately became the label’s best-selling title, but not well enough to make the Billboard LP chart. (One Nation Underground was reissued by the Drag City label in 2017.)

Related: What were the musical highlights of 1967?

Pearls Before Swine followed the debut with Balaklava, also on ESP-Disk, before being signed by the major Reprise label. These Things Too, in 1969, peaked at #200 in the trade publication, and was followed by The Use of Ashes in 1970. City of Gold and …Beautiful Lies You Could Live (both 1971) were credited to Tom Rapp/Pearls Before Swine. ESP-Disk released a live Pearls Before Swine album in 1971 as well.

Listen to “Drop Out” from One Nation Underground

The group toured for the first time in 1971 but Reprise issued their next album, Familiar Songs, under Rapp’s name (it is sometimes known simply as Tom Rapp), although the leader had intended it to be issued as a Pearls Before Swine title. He was dropped by Reprise when that release failed to catch on and signed with Blue Thumb Records, which released two further albums by Rapp, Stardancer (1972) and Sunforest (1973). Rapp toured with a group still using the PBS name, then retired from the music business in the mid-’70s.

In the ’80s, Rapp became a lawyer specializing in civil rights and anti-discrimination cases, a profession he held throughout the rest of his life. He returned to music on a part-time basis in 1997, releasing a solo album titled A Journal of the Plague Year in 1999. He also appeared on a Neil Young tribute album, This Note’s for You Too, singing “After the Gold Rush,” and performed at the Terrastock music festival twice in the 2000s.

Despite their low profile even during their existence, Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine were later discovered by, and became influential to, a number of artists, particularly in the psychedelic revival genre of the ’90s and after.

Listen to Rapp and Pearls Before Swine’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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