Yet, while Marvin truly honored his mother, father and son were in constant conflict.
“If something happened, [our father] would ask us three times to tell the truth because we learned at a very early age to be very truthful. Marvin would lie to protect me. … Marvin would use my father’s hairbrush, when he knew he wasn’t supposed to do, and leave it in the bathroom where he knew our father would find it out of place.”
Mischievous Marvin eventually left home and joined the Air Force, dreaming of becoming an aviator, but by then he had turned into a defiant young man and he and the military soon parted ways, too.
After returning to Washington, then-Marvin Gay began refashioning himself and his name - first as a doo-wop singer, then adding an “e” to his name, and later as a hit singer-songwriter and musician with Berry’s Gordy Hitsville in Detroit. By the time Hitsville had become Motown and moved to Los Angeles, Marvin had bought homes for his Gay/Gaye families and Zee was by Marvin’s side.
“We had always been very close as children,” she said, turning a smile and quietly chuckling as she recalled “living at 1716 I Street SW” and “playing on piles of sand and coal and throwing stones in the water near the wharf.”
“My mother was always tired,” Zeola recalled. “My mother was a domestic … for a family in Silver Spring. Marvin and Frankie would meet her at the bus stop every day to help her carry bags. Marvin didn’t like her working like that because she also had to work making a home for us. I liked going [to work] with my mother because the kids there had real toys.”
Somewhat happier times came when the family moved to spanking new digs in Benning Terrace Southeast, where Zeola attended Kelly Miller Junior High and Marvin attended Spingarn High before transferring to Cardozo.
“We still had to make games for ourselves and be obedient,” she said, “but my father finally felt sorry us and even made a ‘Monopoly’ game for us with paper money and with rocks as the dice.”
Fame, fortune, misfortune
While Motown and its R&B groups, including the Miracles, the Temptations and the Supremes, were chalking up hit after hit in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Marvin was doing the same, going solo or recording duets, and by the time the 1970s began merging in the 1980s, big brother Marvin and little sister Zeola were practically inseparable - and the father-son problems more pronounced.
“Jealously” is the word Zeola used to describe the relationship between father and son.
“Marvin bought us houses [including two in Washington] and cars.”
“Marvin would send money.”
“Marvin would send my mother roses, beautiful roses.”
“My father resigned as bishop [of their church] for Marvin … and felt he had lost stature as head of the household.”