BLACK AND BLUES - Ex-Roomful bassist Preston Hubbard's long journey to hell and back:[All Edition]
RICK MASSIMO Journal Staff WriterProvidence JournalProvidence, R.I.: Jul 27, 2003.  pg. B.01

Full Text (2784   words)

Copyright Providence Journal/Evening Bulletin Jul 27, 2003


ON successive nights earlier this month, Preston Hubbard's upright bass resounded through Sal's Rhythm and Blues Club in Johnston.

During an open-session blues jam the first night and an appearance by his band, Nick Curran and the Nitelifes, the next, Hubbard's playing was agile but not flashy, with a warmly defined sound that not only supported the featured players but gently nudged them to new heights.

Hubbard is a rare talent. He may have the most impressive resume of any rock and blues musician to come out of Rhode Island.

Born and raised in Providence, he spent eight years with Roomful of Blues, then moved to Austin, Texas, and spent 10 years with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Along the way, he played on a top-10 pop single, helped put two other songs on the national charts and lent his talents to a number of highly successful albums.

Together, his bands have combined for four Grammy nominations.

Yet the Sal's gig earlier this month was Hubbard's first appearance in Rhode Island in nearly 10 years - years during which Hubbard struggled with drug and alcohol problems, including a heroin habit that nearly killed him.

Indeed, Hubbard now says that he was addicted to heroin for much of his career with both Roomful and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

"There's always a honeymoon period where drugs are great," he says, "but it always catches up with you."

In 1994, with his drug habit growing and his musical skills eroding, Hubbard and the Thunderbirds parted ways. Then the real spiral began.

To support his habit, Hubbard started selling heroin as well as using it. Then he dropped out of sight. By 1996, his mother was running newspaper ads in the Austin Chronicle trying to learn his whereabouts.

Eventually, Hubbard spent a year in a Texas state prison. He also stopped playing bass. The drugs had won.

Now Hubbard is cleaned up and back on the road.

"I really don't have any regrets except hurting the people that love me," Hubbard, 50, says in a flat, gravelly voice that sounds like it comes from exactly halfway between Texas and Rhode Island. "That is my real true regret and I'll make it up to them the rest of my life. The rest of it, it's my life. I made choices."

And he tries to help others avoid his mistakes. Not by scolding or lecturing, but by laying out the facts.

"I don't preach," Hubbard says.

Still, his story, told in a series of phone interviews, face-to- face meetings and on his Web site, has the hell-and-back arc of a sermon.

HUBBARD STARTED playing bass when he was 14, growing up on Providence's East Side. Drugs followed closely.

"I did some kind of dope since I was 15," Hubbard says.


"I think it was the time. . . . It was just around. I don't think there was any sort of psychological reason. I didn't really have a painful childhood. I just liked getting high. Everyone I knew, too."

In 1976, Hubbard joined Roomful of Blues. They were already Rhode Island's pre-eminent blues band, with a mix of fun, danceable jump blues and swing that helped them stand out against the musical landscape of the time.

Back then, Hubbard says, his drugs of choice were alcohol, cocaine and Quaaludes. It was just part of the life, he says. But it was under control. It had to be: there was too much hard work and traveling to do, especially after the release of the group's first record in 1978 on Island Records.

Greg Piccolo, one of Roomful's saxophone players at the time and the one who invited Hubbard to join the band, concurs.

"He certainly wasn't strung out or anything when he was in Roomful, not to my knowledge anyway. It never affected his playing. . . ."

"Everybody liked to party. . . . Some guys went too far, some guys didn't. The bottom line is, if you wanna keep playing, you figure it out."

He acknowledges, however, that "there were a lot of things I didn't wanna know if I didn't need to know."

In 1980, Hubbard left Roomful briefly, heading to Atlanta and a woman he'd fallen in love with. But by 1982, he was back.

It was during this period, Hubbard says, he first used heroin.

At first, Hubbard claims, it didn't affect his playing. And certainly, the band's reputation only grew, including Grammy nominations in 1983 and 1984, and recordings with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Big Joe Turner and other blues heroes.

In 1984, guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, whom Hubbard met while touring through Austin, asked him to join the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

At that time, the Thunderbirds "were like a rocket ship about to blast off and it needed one more fuel cylinder," drummer Fran Christina says. (Christina is also a Rhode Island native and a former member of Roomful of Blues.) And Hubbard was it.

"I had an inclination that he dabbled in [heroin]," Christina says, "which I think was the [extent] at the time, and I and the rest of the guys were concerned . . . So we grilled Preston about his fooling around, and he seemed cool with it. . . . He was everything we were looking for at the time."

After two more years of driving from club to club, coast to coast, the band's hard work paid off.

In 1986, the Fabulous Thunderbirds released Hubbard's first record with the band, Tuff Enuff. The title single, blues-derived but pop-catchy, driven by Hubbard's pumping electric bass and topped off with singer Kim Wilson's braggadocio, went to number 10 on the pop charts in March of that year.

And the whirlwind of touring just got more intense.

Hubbard's Web site,, details a particularly hectic juncture - writing a song for the movie Light of Day while on tour in Australia, flying immediately to Los Angeles for a couple of hours' sleep, then a 6 a.m. wake-up call to appear on the TV show Solid Gold, followed by an all-day photo shoot and a night flight to Chicago to film their just-written song.

"It was rock 'n' roll, and we were ramming," Christina says, "and we were high on the hog, and it's coming at you 100 miles an hour and you're standing there. It's nothing you had to seek out. It came after you. . . .

"And hell, it was physically debilitating enough to be on the road 300 days a year. [And there were] interviews, gigs, TV shows, and sometimes you've had three hours sleep in three days, and somebody says, 'Hey, you wanna do a bump before we do this?' and you say 'I don't really do this, but . . . ' "

There was The Tonight Show. Arsenio Hall. Late Night with David Letterman. MTV. The 1988 Grammy Awards (they were nominated twice and presented an award). Songs on the soundtracks to Cocktail and My Cousin Vinnie, with accompanying video shoots. Hubbard's circle was taking on stars almost by the day.

There were new acquaintances on the other end of the social spectrum as well.

On his Web site, he says, "As we were touring the world, I started getting adept at scoring dope, to keep up with my ever- growing habit. Big cities were no problem - you just go into the lowest . . . [neighborhood] that you can find, and there will be junkies and dealers. Another good rule of thumb was to always find the street whores - they will hook you up . . ."

Why would a guy at the top of his profession, making scads of money, seeing the world, playing great music, head into the worst neighborhoods he could find and seek refuge in heroin, a drug whose main effect, users say, is to numb you?

The easy psychological answers don't apply, Hubbard says.

"I'm sure there's some kind of self-medication going on. But like I said earlier, it catches up with you. When you're messing with that stuff, you never think it's going to catch up to you. I'm sure I did some self-medication behind some heartbreaks with some women. But I just liked it, [and] it came to a point where I had to have it."

Heroin is sneaky that way; users say that it works in reverse from most other drugs. Hubbard says, "You wake up sick and you have to get well."

HUBBARD GOT A STERN WARNING in 1987 from Vaughan, the band's lead guitarist, about his heroin use.

Yet he managed to stay with the band another seven years, in fact outlasting Vaughan.

"Junkies by nature are great con artists," Hubbard says. "They can hide it. I was good at hiding everything, even when I was sick."

"He thought he was hiding it," Christina says. "I knew he was doing it for several years before. But I figured, 'Look, whatever somebody does, I don't care; it's their business.' "

As the '90s opened, the Thunderbirds' star was dimming. "We were still touring a lot, making money still," Hubbard says. "It's just that the record sales went down the toilet."

"I think I burned out," Hubbard says. "I mean, we just toured for 10 years. . . . And the direction the band seemed to be going in - just the whole thing."

As the band faded, so did Hubbard's facade.

"I just didn't hide it. I used to keep a low profile. The band, the music, was the priority. Toward the end, it was like, '. . . I don't care who knows.' "

"Toward the end," Christina remembers, "I couldn't play, because a rhythm section's gotta be together."

"We had a two-week stand in Reno at a casino," Hubbard says, "and Kim and I got into it in the dressing room one night, mainly about the drug thing, and I said, 'I'm gone; I'll see you.' "

He finished the stand, and that was it.

"I think Kim knew, at that point, it was a lost cause to snap me out."

IN 1994, HUBBARD had no band and no record contract. He'd lost the only job he had held for 10 years.

Now he was a businessman. According to his Web site, he sold pura chiva - pure heroin.

"That just started as a fluke, small-time, to support my own habit, and it just went out of proportion. . . . And I gave a good price [to junkies] because I was one of them," he explained in a phone interview.

For the next five years, he and a succession of girlfriends lived a transient life: friends' houses, hotels, floors. Hubbard owned six guns and a collection of switchblades. He says on his Web site that he never used them, but he knew he needed to keep them handy.

Music lost out to the habit he'd picked up along the way. "I didn't touch a bass for a good six years," he says. "I just walked away from it. . . . My dope business just grew."

"I didn't see him," says his mother, Leslie Hershkowitz of Providence. ". . . I knew what he'd gotten himself into, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. He was off in another world."

In 1996, Hershkowitz placed several ads in the Austin Chronicle asking for help locating Hubbard. There were no firm responses.

Hubbard says he was in the city jail "anywhere from overnight to three or four days, 8 or 10 times." In 1998, he was sentenced to six months in the county jail at Del Valle, serving 21/2. In prison, Hubbard was known as "Guero Loco" - crazy white man. He liked it so much he got it tattooed on his back.

Hubbard got out two days before Thanksgiving of 1998 and was back in business the same day. "I was right back at it," he says. In June 1999, he went back to Del Valle on more drug charges, then into TDC - the Texas Department of Corrections state prison in Abilene, then El Paso.

"The first day," Hubbard says, "it was pretty scary, because you realize you are nothing. . . . You are just cattle. People are screaming at you, and they shave your head. . . . They actually put you in cages while waiting to get processed."

He lived in 50-man dorms. "Everything's open. The bathroom's wide open. And there's a lot of female guards. So you get used to doing whatever in front of everybody."

He says he was never called by name, only by number.

"Texas pen is old school. Have you seen Cool Hand Luke? It's Cool Hand Luke. The bigger units are farms. . . . And they've got the bosses on the horses, with the shotguns."

While there, Hubbard cleaned up - cold turkey, by force of circumstance - and got the distance to take stock.

"Just sick of running, moving, waking up sick all the time. . . . It's very hard to walk away in the free world, because you're sick, and you pick up that phone because [you] can feel better in 30 seconds."

He got out June 26, 2000; he'd been in exactly one year. He called his mother, got a bus to Houston, ate at a KFC, then got a bus to Austin.

He says he's been clean since.

"When I was in my first unit at TDC, I just said 'I just don't want that life anymore.' I've had some emotional lows over the past couple of years, but it's not an option. . . . I have an incredible support group."

"It was wonderful," Hershkowitz says. "Of course, he really had no choice, and inside he just decided 'I've got to go in another direction.' So he did. And he said nobody could ever lead him down that road again."

His Web site tells his life story, in the hopes that people will learn from it. He knows that people in his former position don't need lectures; they need facts.

"[People] see movies, but they don't know what it's like. . . . I know it's better putting something out there that people can identify with instead of telling people what to do. . . . That doesn't help. I've been on the other side of that." He says that he gets responses from people who say he's an inspiration, including his former girlfriend, who's still in federal prison.

IF THIS WERE an episode of Behind the Music, Hubbard would have gotten back with his Fabulous Thunderbirds bandmates, all would be patched up and a new album would be in the works.

It didn't work out like that.

Relations are good, Hubbard says, but they've gone their own ways. Wilson is the only member still in the band from Hubbard's time. "I see 'em, and there's no bad blood when I do."

He went down to Blue Monday, a weekly jam session at Antone's, in Austin. His friend, singer Lou Ann Barton, encouraged him to get up and play. He replied, "Only if you do." So she did.

"I didn't know if I was going to freeze up; I didn't know what was going to happen. But it was wonderful. It was like coming home."

In February of this year, Hubbard hooked up with Nick Curran and the Nightlifes, a classic Austin blues/swing quartet. Hubbard says they sound more the old Roomful of Blues than any band he's been with since - well, the old Roomful of Blues.

Hubbard's 50; guitarist-singer Curran is 25. "Everybody in Austin calls him my son," Hubbard says.

Curran says that he had known of Hubbard's problems, but had spent time with him prior to hiring him. "Just from knowing him . . . that part of his life is over, and he has a new life."

Hubbard went back on the road. And earlier this month, the road led him to Sal's.

Hubbard reconnected with friends from the area, both on and off stage, spending his breaks posing for pictures with his mother, giving out hugs and engaging in deep conversations. On the second night at Sal's, Piccolo sat in.

There were probably 80 people at the Monday jam, perhaps 40 at the Tuesday show - a long way from the Grammy Awards, but a long way from TDC, too.

Hubbard, the man who was tired of the road 10 years ago, is happy to get back on it. "I took a break and now I love it."

"I like my life; I really do."

* * *