On April 12, 2014, Preston Hubbard, legendary bassist for the Grammy-nominated band Roomful of Blues and Texas-blues kings the Fabulous Thunderbirds, was helped into the emergency ward at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. His neuropathy was so severe he could barely walk, and his frail body was losing a battle against the toxins inside it. By all accounts, including Hubbard's, his condition was dire and might have killed him. He had insulin treatments and three blood transfusions. After 30 hours in the ER, he was finally stabilized.
At the age of 61, the musician's body had been ravaged by decades of hard drug and alcohol use. Hubbard has never been shy about his "insane behavior," his former life as an addict, a dealer and a prison inmate. Before, during and after his career as a successful musician on the East Coast and in Austin, Texas, he lived dangerously and recklessly, and cheated death and oblivion more than once.
Yet Hubbard, who has lived in St. Louis for a decade and backed up local blues artists such as Big Mike Aguirre and touring artists like Felix Reyes, denied on his Facebook page that drinking contributed to his illness. "I had critical blood sugar," he wrote at the time. "I don't know how long I have been diabetic, but my blood sugar was insane."
In a familiar music-business story, Hubbard had no health insurance, and his medical bills were substantial: upward of $18,000, with some of the debt waived by Barnes.
On the weekend of June 7 and 8, 2014, the St. Louis blues community came together to help one of its own. The benefits — one held at the Blues City Deli and one at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups — raised, according to one of the organizers, approximately $7,000 to help with Hubbard's medical bills.
Musicians came from around the region and the country. Kim Wilson performed, with Prez joining his old Thunderbirds comrade on stage for some classic blues, including a scorching version of B.B. King's "Sweet Little Angel." Bonnie Raitt, with whom Prez had worked on her Nick of Time album, sent signed CDs for the auction. One supporter donated a guitar (owned and played by Duke Robillard), as did fellow T-Bird and Texas-blues great Jimmie Vaughan. (Vaughan's Stratocaster never sold at the auction; Hubbard decided to keep it.) Local blues aficionados donated posters, albums, art and other items. Dozens of musicians, including the Funky Butt Brass Band and the Soulard Blues Band, performed.
"Every little bit helps," Kim Wilson said from the stage at BB's, as Hubbard beamed beside him. The sentiment echoed throughout the room.
"Everybody was there to try to help somebody out," says Jeremiah Johnson, who performed at the event. "We were all there for a good reason. The music was good, and topnotch talent came out. You're all there for a guy that's basically a legend. He's gonna be in the books forever. Even though I didn't know him well, it was a good feeling to help him out."
The events were successful, not just in the money raised, but as celebrations of Preston Hubbard and his contributions to American music.
There was only one problem: While the blues community felt it needed to do something for Prez, Prez didn't need the money.
The year 1994 was a turning point for Preston Hubbard. After a decade with the multi-platinum-selling band the Fabulous Thunderbirds, he quit and disappeared from view. Friends, musicians and journalists began to wonder if he was dead. His mother even took out ads in the Austin Chronicle pleading for information about her missing son.
Her boy was lost to the music world but well-known in the Austin underworld: As Hubbard tells the story, he chose dope over music. To pay for that habit, and for his taste for crack cocaine, he slipped away from the spotlight and sold $20 packets of pure tar heroin to the rich and the indigent, the powerful and the desperate, and to musicians — a lot of musicians — in Austin. According to his published diaries, he ran a prolific operation, built up a small arsenal of weapons, and saw lives, including his own, destroyed. For years he played what he calls "the Dope Game." After multiple arrests, his fourth bust was the final play. He got two years in the Texas Department of Corrections in Abilene and El Paso.
When Prez resurfaced in the summer of 2000, he seemed to be getting his life and career back on track. He worked with blues singer Lou Ann Barton and with rising star Nick Curran, and after a few years gigging in Austin, he moved to St. Louis and became an adopted son of a tight-knit blues community. At the Blues City Deli in Benton Park, where the bassist often performs, his portrait hangs on the wall next to pictures of B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf.
"He's one of the best jazz and blues players to ever pick up a bass," says guitarist Elliot Sowell, who has known Hubbard for seven years and helped get him to the hospital. "He's got a style that most people can't grasp how to do. He plays behind the beat to make it sound greasy and raw. People try to do that, but they can't."
Austin-based drummer Damien Llanes, who toured with Hubbard in Nick Curran's backing group the Nitelifes, remembers when Hubbard first joined up.
"We really wanted him in the band," Llanes says on the phone from Austin. "He had a great reputation as a bass player, and when he got in there, he knew the styles. We didn't have to teach him anything. In fact, he was teaching us. We complemented each other really well. We were roommates, and when I was down and out, he gave me money."
"When I heard he was sick, I did know that he was a drinker," Llanes adds. "I think he substituted his [drug] addiction with another one. I felt sad for him, but he was still coping. He was still touring and playing."
Hubbard says he has been clean since 1999, his heroin days long behind him, though he admits that he still drinks. In the mid-winter of 2014, that drinking was apparently serious enough that a group of friends, including a bandmate and a local club owner, gathered at his apartment in the Shaw neighborhood. One friend was convinced he was drinking himself to death; the empty bottles of vodka at his home weren't reassuring.
The group persuaded the musician to go into rehab and take advantage of a free trip to Eric Clapton's Crossroads Centre in Antigua. The 30-day stay would be paid for by MusiCares, a program established by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to provide financial and medical assistance to musicians in need.
Hubbard initially agreed to the recovery plan, and a flight was booked to Saint John for him — a friend put it on her credit card, and others promised to chip in — but a few hours later he changed his mind. There would be no trip and no rehab.
In April, after his health continued to deteriorate, he ended up at Barnes.
Hubbard's condition was serious. But what the people involved in organizing the June 2014 benefits for the musician didn't know was that his financial situation was sound. A month prior to the fundraising events, Hubbard had come into a sizable inheritance.
In July 2013 his mother passed away. And a letter from the Providence, Rhode Island, law firm Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C., dated April 15, 2014, notified Hubbard of control over his portion of her estate. Hubbard's share — based on a stock portfolio divided among three brothers — was valued at more than $420,000.
By April 28, 2014, Hubbard had his own TD Ameritrade account to access funds distributed by the estate.
On May 6, 2014, a month prior to the first benefit at Blues City Deli, Hubbard cashed in more than $49,000 worth of stock, according to Ameritrade statements viewed by the Riverfront Times.
Within a week, even as the blues community was promoting and planning benefit shows to aid him, Hubbard had more than $45,000 in his checking account.
It wasn't a rock star's ransom, but it was more than enough to cover his medical expenses. Meanwhile, his newly acquired stocks were beginning to pay dividends at the rate of $800 a month.
Music benefits, whether small or colossal, have become a fixture of the industry. Every other weekend in any city you can name, someone is throwing a benefit for some cause. Musicians and music lovers believe in helping each other in hard times. Most often, the fundraising events are legitimate and the organizers are well-intentioned, as they were in the case of "Props for Prez" and "BCD Hearts Prez." Scrutiny of causes and their beneficiaries, however, is often lax or nonexistent.
John May, a partner at BB's Jazz Blues and Soups, a venue that hosts nine to ten benefits a year, recognizes the need for vigilance.
"Generally, everything needs to be quantified," explains May, "otherwise people will pop up and be like, 'Why don't you do a benefit for me?' This city has always been filled with various gigging musicians, and they always rally together, not only for their own musical brothers and sisters, but they'll help a family or a mom or a good cause. They're always lined up to do that. That is a good thing."
He adds, "For me personally, it's always been [important] to quantify the true need of it — make sure it's justified and meet some of the players involved and question who is receiving the money, because it has to be recorded, and to make sure it isn't treated as income to someone."
But sometimes no amount of reasonable vetting would reveal a lack of need.
The community that rallied on Preston Hubbard's behalf knew little, if anything, about his wealth. The musician spoke vaguely of an inheritance to some friends, though he never indicated how much or when it would come through.
A month prior to the benefits, however, Hubbard did know. He had the cash and stocks in hand. One organizer (who asked not to be identified) expressed shock when he was told about Hubbard's wealth at the time of the fundraisers. Neither the planners nor the public had a way of knowing the musician wasn't in need.
While clubs like BB's and nonprofit organizations like the Blues Society claim to have processes in place to review charitable giving, the national scene has recently seen major scams: Portland, Oregon, songwriter Kasey Anderson bilked investors out of $600,000 for a bogus benefit CD for the West Memphis Three. (Anderson was sentenced to four years in jail.) Last year, a Louisville, Kentucky, man named Kyle T. Nunn allegedly stole $9,000 of seed money donated for a benefit concert featuring country star Jason Aldean (no such concert ever occurred).
From May's perspective, a benefit might not always be the best option for musicians facing hard times.
"If you see the documentation, and they're like, 'We're having a hard time keeping afloat,' how much do the medications cost? Certain things can be negotiated, and maybe that's where we can be more helpful, to help rearrange some things. If you're looking at someone who is obviously not under any addictions or lifestyle issues, and just living right on the edge anyway, then all of a sudden they have to have $500 a month just to keep up with their Medicare or Medicaid and medications, they're going to have a problem," May says. "Unfortunately, they might try to milk those or not take them and have a shorter life. Those are things you can work at, but it doesn't have to be done as a benefit. It can be getting the facts together and pointing them in the right direction."
The strange case of Hubbard's benefits hardly rises to the level of felonious deception, but they were a deception nonetheless — not because Prez isn't a fine musician, not because he wasn't gravely ill and not because he didn't have bills to pay. He did. He simply didn't need two days' worth of concerts and auctions to do it.
Hubbard also solicited donations via PayPal. On April 28, 2014, two weeks after leaving the hospital and more than a week after the executor sent notice that his inheritance was on the way, Hubbard posted the following on Facebook:
To my FB familia-
I need help with medical costs, rent, all that. All my T-Bird money is long gone. What checks I do get are a joke. I have no insurance, but have applied for assistance. Anything at all will help and be much appreciated.
Funds can be put in my PayPal account:
Thank you everybody. Much Love!
Eight days after that appeal, according to Ameritrade records, Hubbard cashed in the first $49,000 of his inheritance.
Preston Hubbard has long cast a spell over fellow musicians and vintage American music fans. Anyone who has played with the colorful raconteur will tell you what a good bass player he is, and his recordings speak for themselves. He's a living legend, an alumnus of not one but two of the great American bands. Along with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Roomful of Blues, his résumé includes recordings with everyone who's anyone: Big Joe Turner, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Snooky Pryor, Pinetop Perkins, Duke Robillard, Darden Smith and Bonnie Raitt. His music merits admiration.
Hubbard is also a doomed romantic's idol: a kind of Anglo, shooting-star Stagger Lee. A rock & roll folk hero with a prison tattoo that says "Guero Loco" on his back. Anyone who wants to rub elbows with tough-enough, platinum-selling blues royalty, anyone who thinks gangster chic and doing time for dealing only adds to a cache of outlaw cool, will have a hard time letting go of the myth.
When reached at his temporary residence (a Super 8 motel in Belleville, Illinois), Hubbard at first sounds amiable, even eager to discuss his current health, his gigging in the area and his plans for the future.
But when the subject turns to his wealth in the spring of 2014, his guard comes up.
"I might have gotten it before, I don't know," Hubbard says of his inheritance. "The benefits were in process. I had nothing to do with them. My inheritance came in, and the benefits were in place."
How does Hubbard explain his finances at the time? He doesn't, or at least he hedges his bets when it comes to talking about the family estate — as does his younger brother Jim Kirker of Boston, Massachusetts, who shared in the inheritance.
Kirker is a respected specialist in bassoon repair and service, and the call to his home may have interrupted an otherwise tranquil weekend. He sounds miffed by the questions but agrees to give his take on the Hubbard family bequest.
"We knew there was going to be an inheritance for years," Kirker says. "We didn't know [how much it would be] until we got it. I can tell you it was after the benefit was planned and given. My stepfather was very secretive about all that shit. We had absolutely no idea how much it was going to be or whether we were going to get much at all."
Asked if the inheritance might have come through prior to June 2014, Kirker says he can't remember and refuses to consult his records. And then, as if to make clear what's at stake in protecting a myth, Kirker states: "You print one fucking thing about that, I will come after you. Let alone my other two brothers. You understand me?"
Back at that hotel room in Belleville, Prez sounds equally exasperated. Of the fundraising events, Hubbard says, "I appreciated them. I loved that all my friends across the nation manned up for them."
Asked if he knew how much money he had prior to the benefits, he simply sounds annoyed.
"Sure I did," he admits. "So what? If I found out I got an inheritance, I'm supposed to tell them to cancel the benefits? They put a lot of work into the benefits."
And why not tell the organizers that he had gotten lucky, that he no longer needed the money, and that the proceeds could be donated to someone or some organization that did?
"I fucking needed it, man," Hubbard seethes. "I had medical bills. And I'm still paying them off! I worked out a deal with Barnes Hospital. I'm paying $210 a month. It comes out of my checking account every month.... I'm living in a fucking hotel, waiting for my fucking house to close!"
During his glory years with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Hubbard's bass pumped out from radios and through sold-out theaters around the world. "Tuff Enuff" was the band's signature song, a Billboard top-ten hit in 1986. "I'd wrestle with a lion and a grizzly bear," growls singer Kim Wilson in a couplet that could have been written for Hubbard himself. "It's my life, baby, but I don't care."
It's not surprising that Hubbard kept his cut of the estate hid from the community. A six-figure portfolio is good for a lot of things; maintaining the image of a bad-ass, Texas-blues carnal is not one of them.
"Junkies by nature are great con artists," Hubbard told a writer for the Providence Journal in 2003. "They can hide it. I was good at hiding everything, even when I was sick."
Hubbard is now out of the Super 8, with a newly purchased home in south city, where he had lived for years. He's got his '52 bass with him and a flush stock portfolio. He says his health is good, and he doesn't need the twice-daily insulin shots anymore.
He knows how lucky he has been: Lucky that he didn't die like the junkies he shot up with and dealt to in Austin, lucky that his friends got him to the hospital in time when he could barely stand, and lucky to be left with, while in that same hospital, an inheritance that would set him up for life.
And the benefit money the fortunate heir took from a blues community that was none the wiser? He's no more going to give it back than he is about to return Jimmie Vaughan's guitar.
"I had racked up five credit cards living," he says. "I'm talking about rent and bills. I was heavily in debt.
"My mom saved my fucking life."