The younger sister of the late Marvin Gaye has some tough talk for anyone even remotely interested in the singer’s life: “If it doesn’t have my name or my sister’s name attached to it, it may not be accurate.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Zeola Gaye also discussed growing up poor in the nation’s capital; her family’s substance abuse problems; her brother’s favorite saying, “Do unto others”; her mother, “a God-fearing Christian who didn’t drink or curse,” and a performance with Marvin when she was in high school.
The gig was at the Howard Theatre, which, during its recent reopening, paid homage to one of the city’s native sons in front of an audience that included Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson and Marvin’s little sis.
“There were always tensions in our family.”
“I have some fond memories of growing up in D.C.”
“My father resigned his church post for Marvin.”
“Marvin was upset at the Motown 25 [anniversary show]. He wanted to know why MJ [as in Michael Jackson] could sing any song he wanted, but he couldn’t perform ‘Sexual Healing.’ “
“Drugs were rampant in L.A. We [Marvin and Zeola] used marijuana and cocaine. No heroin. No needles.”
“We were going to take him to rehab on Monday, but he died on Sunday.”
That would be Sunday, April 1, 1984, the day before Marvin would have turned 45 and the day, during another domestic dispute, that Marvin Sr. used the .38 handgun - which Marvin had given to him - to shoot his own son dead.
The world lost a prolific songwriter and soul-stirring vocalist, and Jeanne, Frankie and Zeola lost their loving, caretaker brother.
Zeola said that sometimes, since Marvin’s death, she can’t quite reconcile the pains of the Gaye family with the simple joys of life they shared, a contrariness surely reflected in Marvin’s music.
Zeola - or Zee, the nickname Marvin gave her and she embraced - said her brother’s spiritual self, reared in Pentecostalism, was always in conflict with his secular self, which was encouraged at a young age to enjoy soulful musical stirrings in church.
All four siblings were raised in the church (where Marvin first sang as an adolescent) and were told to honor their mother and father, and respect other adults, and to be mindful of the sabbath - and for the most part they did.
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.”
As Frankie Beverly and Maze, an R&B group mentored by Marvin, emphasize in their 1980 hit “Joy and Pain (Are Like Sunshine and Rain),” and when the sun poured down happiness upon the Gay/Gaye family, Zeola knew Marvin’s fame and fortune easily could be washed away by the stormy days of jealousy.
By the early 1980s, Marvin had grown weary of the drugging and the family discord.
Marvin senior was a drinker, so much so that he couldn’t maintain steady employment outside the church, something that any mother’s son would find hard to accept.
“Marvin was tired,” Zeola said, “and he was ready to go to glory.”
“We visited each other all the time for two years” before he died, she recalled, her eyes hidden behind shaded glasses. “He was at my house all the time, almost every day.”
Marvin was slated for intervention April 2, she said, but the family demons already had devised other plans.
Zeola, who later became a Jevohah’s Witness, said that on that day, she was forced to deal with Marvin with one hand and his alleged slayer with the other.
“I had to help make funeral arrangements for my brother and hire a lawyer for my father.”
Zeola said that “writing helps” her remember the family’s fortunes and overcome the misfortunes, especially when she can relay to Marvin’s fans “the truth” and tell the world that Marvin was “as spiritual as he was sensual” and that he was a family man who loved to “make people happy.”
Her projects include not only promoting her book, “My Brother, Marvin: A Memoir by Zeola Gaye,” but another play is in the works, “My Brother, Marvin II,” with producer/playwright Angela Barrow Dunlap and director Antwone Fisher.
“Marvin II includes new material” based on letters her mother and father had kept, Zeola said.
There are other books, too, but as Zeola said, if you want to know the truth, consider the source first and foremost.
“I’m not making any apologies,” said Zeola, whose book cites her and Marvin’s encounters withWayne Newton and Dick Gregory, among other celebrities. “If it doesn’t have my name or my sister’s name [Jeanne] attached to it, it may not be accurate.”
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.