RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now we'll say goodbye to a musician who didn't really find his audience until years after he had given up trying to reach them. In the mid-1950s, a kid named Tom Rapp finished in third place in a youth talent show in Rochester, Minn. The boy who would go on to become Bob Dylan placed fifth. Tom Rapp also went on to become a folk musician, but his story took a different turn.
He recorded under the name Pearls Before Swine. He enjoyed a promising start to his career. His debut album in 1967 reportedly sold about 200,000 copies. Rapp was offered a spot at Woodstock, but due to a scheduling conflict, he turned it down. An interest in his music began a sharp decline. That's not to say Tom Rapp didn't have an influence. Elton John's lyricist Bernie Taupin says their song "Rocket Man" was influenced by the Pearls Before Swine song of the same name.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET MAN")
PEARLS BEFORE SWINE: (Singing) One day they told us the sun had flared and taken him inside.
MARTIN: Tom Rapp left music altogether in 1976 and eventually became a civil rights attorney in Philadelphia. He was resigned to anonymity. Then in the 1990s, people started to find his music again. Pearls Before Swine got hip. While attending a music festival in Providence in 1997, Tom Rapp discovered just how popular he had become. He climbed on stage unannounced for his first performance since the '70s.
JEFFREY ALEXANDER: The jaws were on the floor, and it was just so moving. It was such a beautiful experience.
MARTIN: That was Jeffrey Alexander. He was there at that show. He had produced a series of Pearls Before Swine tribute albums which helped lead to this resurgence of interest.
ALEXANDER: He had no idea that he had created some of these seminal albums of like psychedelic folk music, he really didn't.
MARTIN: Tom Rapp died Sunday after a long fight with cancer. He was 70 years old.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRANSLUCENT CARRIAGES")
PEARLS BEFORE SWINE: (Singing) The translucent carriages... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.