She was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and she had a troubled childhood, during which her father fired a non-fatal shot at her mother. She was not allowed to attend school until she was the age of a typical third-grader.
She supported her family by working as a housekeeper in Virginia and Maryland.
She divorced Marvin Gay, Sr. after he shot and killed their son following an argument. Her nearly fifty-year marriage to Gay produced three other children in addition to Marvin: Jeanne, Frankie, and Zeola.
Her son Marvin Gaye (born Marvin Gay) is remembered for such hits as "Sexual Healing" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."