By JIM BEAUGEZ
Joe Dera recalls his time as a high-powered music publicist
Mississippi has had an outsized influence on Western popular culture thanks to the legacies of the many musicians, artists and personalities who have called the state home. For nearly a century, artists inspired by both the hardships and joys they experienced here have turned their experiences into art that has captivated global audiences.
None of this is lost on Joe Dera, a relative newcomer to the state who has been a key player in some of the most iconic moments in popular music and culture since the 1970s. As a music publicist, the New Jersey native has represented the industry’s biggest artists and events—Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Pink Floyd, as well as Live Aid in 1985, a massive charity concert in response to famine in Ethiopia held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and televised around the world.
So, what is an entertainment power broker like Dera doing living in an Antebellum home in the countryside near Bentonia, more than a thousand miles from both New York and Los Angeles? Well, it turns out he’s mostly taking care of the stray dogs he and his wife, Madison native Suzy Case, foster and rehome to families around the country. Retirement, it seems, comes with its own commitments.
“They just find us,” he says while wrangling the six dogs currently living on his 10-acre spread. “I had two beagles come up, and they stayed with me for about a year and a half. Then they disappeared, and all of a sudden these other strays start walking [up].”
The walls of Dera’s 1857 home are adorned with memorabilia of his former life, such as a drum head signed by Ringo Starr, a framed collection of backstage passes, and even a Gibson Les Paul signature guitar—perhaps rock ‘n’ roll’s most recognizable totem, thanks to players like Jimmy Page, Slash and so many others—given to him by the artist and innovator himself, whom he represented for decades.
Dera got his start in music working for Track Records, a label affiliated with Pete Townsend and The Who, in the early ’70s. Fresh out of college, he was tasked with delivering copies of The Who’s new record, Who’s Next, to radio stations across the Midwest and convincing them to play “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley.” He booked underground artists like Patti Smith and the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center in Manhattan before the 1973 collapse of the nineteenth-century building killed four people, a scene reenacted for the debut episode of the HBO series Vinyl, created by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger.
His career really took off once he landed a job with the public relations firm Rogers and Cowan and began handling minor affairs for Paul and Linda McCartney, who were living in Scotland while raising their kids. Although his duties for them at the time consisted of simple tasks like arranging transportation and stocking the kitchen with vegetarian foods when they came to New York, he built a rapport with them over time.
“I’d arrange all the stuff that was kind of boring for the senior executives to do,” he says, “and what happened was, I was the only one in the firm that had a relationship with him because I’m the only one that would ever see him. So, when I went to start my own firm in ‘89, he was the first to come on board. And all of a sudden my bosses at Rogers and Cowan were scrambling to try and save the account.”
Of course, it was too little, too late. McCartney stayed with Dera, and his business steadily grew. Dera signed David Bowie and represented him during the Let’s Dance era, the artist’s biggest commercial peak, and created an irresistible media spectacle by making ticket buyers purchase seats for Bowie’s Madison Square Garden appearance in person at the box office. Footage of the long lines of fans made national news, helping sell tickets in smaller markets, and a few months later he landed on the cover of Time magazine.
“Somebody asked me why a McCartney or a Bowie needed a press agent,” he says. “And I said, ‘Well, it’s to protect them from a lot of the people pulling at them, but also to create situations that aren’t the traditional sit-down-and-do-an-interview type of stuff.’”
In the mid-1980s, Dera’s longtime client Robert Palmer reached his pinnacle of fame with his Riptide album and the single “Addicted to Love.” The memorable music video for the song, featuring Palmer playing the dapper crooner backed by models dancing in uniform makeup and attire, is one of the decade’s most recognizable moments.
“He didn’t even like those videos,” Dera says. “He thought they were a bit pretentious—he thought the whole thing was kind of silly with the girls pretending to [play] guitars. But it was an instant success.”
Despite running a successful PR firm, retirement wasn’t too tough a decision. Dera stood side stage for the cultural and musical explosions of the ’70s, ’80s and ‘90s, and he was still there as the industry evolved in ways he’d never imagined in the 2000s. When downloads and streaming replaced record sales, the labels cut promotional budgets and cleaned house. By then, though, Dera had seen the writing on the wall and diversified his clientele.
“The music business that I grew up in was gone,” he says. “I lost interest in the way it had evolved, and we were doing less and less music [and] more and more television and books. You don’t get rich doing PR in the music business.”
Lately, after selling his firm and moving to Mississippi, he has occasionally stepped up to help publicize local shops like The Flora Butcher with chef David Raines. He visits friends like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes at the Blue Front Café in Bentonia and has made the pilgrimage to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola to pay his respects to his friend and former client. But the dogs keep him home most days, an arrangement that seems to suit both parties well.
Gonzo Rolling Stone writer Hunter S. Thompson once opined, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.” Dera has run that gauntlet and come out the other side clean, and now his rescued pets are the ones running free.
“You can’t lock them up,” he says.
As Dera thrives deep in the Mississippi hills, surrounded by his new charges a world away from his bustling former life, it’s also clear the good guys can win—even in the music business.