When Gregg and Duane got a little older, Mama A sent them to the Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee. The brothers hated it, but it did provide them with their first musical training: They both took lessons in piano and then trumpet, and joined the academy’s marching band. In 1957, Mama A graduated from accounting school, pulled her sons out of the academy and moved the family to Daytona Beach, Florida; the brothers felt like they had ascended from purgatory into the heavenly kingdom.
The family had a dog named Boots. Inevitably he got old and infirm, and had to be taken away and put to sleep. Young Gregg couldn’t grieve for his father, because he had never known him, but he could weep for Boots. “That really had an effect on me,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, the hell with caring about something.'”
In the summer of 1960, when Duane was thirteen, he got a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and was soon speeding all over Daytona Beach. That same summer, Gregg got a paper route for one reason: He wanted enough money to buy a guitar. Come fall, he had twenty-one dollars; with a ninety-five-cent donation from Mama A, he had his very own Sears Silvertone. Gregg played the guitar nonstop; Duane was busy riding his bike around town. But pretty soon Duane started skipping school, staying home to play his baby brother’s guitar. They started fighting over it, and both got better guitars as birthday presents that year. Gregg found that the music provided solace for his grief over Boots; it was a comfort he would need to turn to many times in the years ahead.
Duane dropped out of school after ninth grade and had plenty of time for guitar practice. The brothers played with local bands like the Untils, the House Rockers and the Nightcrawlers, crossing Daytona Beach’s color line; they would invite friends over when Mama A was at work, and play guitar and drink beer all day.
In an effort to keep Gregg on the straight and narrow, Mama A sent him back to military school, but the summer before his senior year, he and Duane formed the band that would be known as the Allman Joys. Gregg couldn’t bear thinking about the good times his brother was having without him in Daytona Beach, so after twelve days of school he headed home. He remembers, “I went into the commandant in my full dress uniform and said, ‘Sir, if you see me getting smaller, it’s because I’m leaving.'” That year’s buzz cut was the last time Gregg has ever worn his hair short.
Gregg was considering going to college to become a dental surgeon. “I let them run free with their choices of what they would do with their lives,” says Mama A. “But I told them they would either go to school or they would work. So they chose the music.”
“Hell, I had some adventure in my soul,” Gregg chortles. “I figured I’d go out and play the chitlin circuit for a year — the places that had the chicken wire up so the beer bottles wouldn’t hit you. I knew we weren’t going to make any money. But perhaps we’d meet some fine-looking women.”
It was 1965. As the eldest son in a fatherless family, Duane was exempt from the Vietnam draft; Gregg was not. So Duane came up with a plan: The night before Gregg’s physical, they would have a “foot-shootin’ party.” Girls were invited; whiskey was drunk; a bull’s-eye was painted on Gregg’s moccasin. Gregg called for an ambulance and then went outside. Guests said later that you could hear the sirens before you could hear the report of the pistol. The bullet grazed his foot; the next day Gregg showed up at the induction center on crutches. He was classified 4-F.
In the summer of 1967, a young drummer named Butch Trucks met the Allman Joys. Trucks had gone to college to become a minister but left after three months to be a hippie. He played in a band called the 31st of February; they headed up to Daytona, which is where he met the Allmans. “Duane was a ball of fire,” he remembers. “He walked into a room, everybody stopped and looked. If you’re lucky, you meet one guy like him in your lifetime. Gregg was just a pretty boy. He had blond hair, and the girls were hanging all over him.”
The Allman Joys hit the road; Gregg switched from guitar to Hammond organ so that they could better replicate the Top Forty hits of the day. The band evolved into Hour Glass and headed to L.A., where they signed a record deal. They released two mediocre albums and broke up in 1968. The brothers argued about where they should go next and angrily parted ways. Gregg stayed in California, but Duane went back East.
“He knew right where he was going,” Gregg says. “He was going to Muscle Shoals, and he wasn’t going to call before he came. He was like that. He was gonna go and get the damn job. Why call?”
Duane showed up at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama; by 1968, it was already famous for the records it had made with Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, among others. With his solos on the Hour Glass records as his calling card, Duane played on a Wilson Pickett session and suggested that they cover “Hey Jude.” Pickett snapped that he wouldn’t be recording a song about “no Jew.” Duane prevailed and contributed a majestic solo on the fade-out; the resulting single went to Number Twenty-three. Duane left the session with a steady job at Muscle Shoals and the approval of Pickett, who dubbed him Skyman.