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."