BY RACHEL CUCCURULLO
For Gene Hull, it all started back in 1893, when his maternal grandfather came to America from Italy. His grandfather made and played his own mandolins and later made sure his daughter (Hull’s mother) learned to play piano.
Fast forward to the 1930s, when it was almost unheard of to see a female band leader. Marge Hull, Gene’s mother, was a band leader during this era and made her living doing so. Her group was called “Marge Hull & Her Melody Boys,” and Gene attributes a large part of his interest in music to his mother’s career choice.
“She was always very easy-going and me and both siblings played music,” Hull said. “She actually played piano for silent films from 12 to 15 years old. I started playing clarinet at 9 years old and then moved on to the alto sax.”
Hull was raised during The Great Depression in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He clearly remembers carrying around his alto saxophone in a pillowcase because his family was not able to afford a hard case at the time.
“At that age, I saw a stage show with Benny Goodman, the famous clarinetist, and his band,” Hull said. “I just thought, wow, I want to do that.”
During his teen years, Hull would ride the bus to attend Big Band Night at The Ritz Ballroom in Bridgeport every week. At 15, he hoped to catch a big break and be asked to take the lead alto’s place in case of an absence.
“Of course, that didn’t happen. It was just me dreaming like kids tend to do.”
Soon after marrying his first wife, Connie, Hull spent a few years on the road traveling with bands. Although it was tough to be away from home for extended periods of time, his wife was very supportive and knew it made them a living and was what he loved.
“When I graduated from Notre Dame in 1952, I started traveling on the road with the ‘Big Bands’ as they called them back in those days,” Hull said. “There was no guitar and that’s what was popular then.”
Hull played with many popular groups during that time on the road; Ted Lewis & Orchestra, Duke Ellington & Orchestra, to name a couple.
Once he and his wife started a family, he knew that was the end of his career on the road. Hull then began to work for a large retailer as a buyer in women’s shoes, coats and dresses. Every Wednesday Hull took the train 60 miles into New York City to shop the market.
“One day while I was in the city, I go into a drug store and ran into a fellow, Al Verst, who used to be second alto when I played lead alto for Ted Lewis,” Hull recalled. “He told me that Tex Beneke, a famous sax player, was holding auditions that day for a lead alto in his newly formed group. Al suggested I audition.”
Hull was a bit resistant to the idea but had just recently started taking lessons again to brush up on his playing skills. At Verst’s suggestion, he was able to borrow a local friend’s sax and audition that day.
“The auditions were at Nola Studios and when I walked in, I saw there were at least 50 to 60 alto sax players waiting to audition,” Hull said. “So, I went in just wanting to see if I could do it and it was a big name at that time...I figured, why not?”
When it was Hull’s turn to audition, he played three tunes and recalled that Tex said, “Alright everybody, let’s a take break.”
“’Take a break?’ I thought. There were at least 40 more people waiting to audition!” Hull said. “Then it clicked; he wanted me.”
Having been in the business for many years, Hull said that he knew this meant he had gotten the gig. He recalled running to the phone booth to call his wife and fill her in on everything that had just happened.
“As soon as I told her I was at the audition, she said ‘When are you leaving?’,” Hull said. “She knew this was what I loved and what I wanted to do. I finally caught my big break.”
At this time, he had four (of what would later be eight) children. Hull left his job as a buyer and traveled around the United States with the band for six months. He then felt that being away from home and family was not where he wanted to be. The traveling was brutal; every day was either spent at a hotel or riding on the tour bus.
After he arrived back home, he tried his hand working in a factory, but that lasted one day as he did not enjoy the work. Hull had learned a good amount about the music business and decided to start his own band, The Jazz Giants. The group had 18 players, both young and old. The Jazz Giants played at the famous Newport Jazz Festival among other venues and did fairly well gigging around the east-coast.
Hull later took on a job to be booker and agent for entertainment acts. During that time, he formed a string quartet with a rock-rhythm section and named them The Disco Strings.
“Big band singer and entertainer, Vic Damone, heard The Disco Strings and incorporated us into his show,” Hull said. “That’s how I got started in Las Vegas.”
Hull lived in Las Vegas for three years and worked on the road with Damone as well as at the Sahara Hotel as the conductor for the house band and The Disco Strings. After Damone went on tour with singer Lena Horne, Hull received a call from someone who showed interest in having him work as the entertainment director for a new cruise line called Scandinavian World Cruises based out of Miami.
“I did that for eight years and then the people at Royal Caribbean saw the kind of work I was doing and asked me to come on board there,” Hull said. “They wanted me to help them expand their entertainment programs.”
Hull played a main part in laying the groundwork for Royal Caribbean’s entertainment programs. He worked for them as entertainment director and show producer for more than 18 years, retiring at age 72.
Upon retirement, Hull started to take courses in creative writing at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus in North Miami. These courses sparked an interest in writing and inspired Hull to self-publish several books. One of his books, Chasing the Muse, is a personal music memoir and his latest book, Brainwave, is a medical thriller and was released in July 2019.
“I’ve found great fun in not only writing but joining and facilitating writer’s groups during my retirement,” Hull said. “I really don’t feel 90. Between being a musician and a writer, you gotta stay sharp.”
EUGENE “GENE” HULL
Lives in: Fort Pierce
Education: University of Notre Dame (B.A. Music Education), Coursework at Fairfield College Prepatory School, Julliard School and Florida International University
Family: 8 children; 4 boys and 4 girls
Hobbies: Reading, tennis (pre age 72), playing music, writing and serving on the advisory board for the Fort Pierce Jazz Society
What Inspires you: ”I guess my sustaining goal in life has been to be an example to my kids of staying the course and following through, no matter how hard it gets at times. We’re still all very close as a family. I guess that’s really my goal to this day.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “Just a funny bit, as a little kid, I brushed my teeth often every day ‘cause my mother said movie stars always had nice looking teeth.”