Marvin Gaye always kept evolving as an artist: cool, confident, and unselfconscious, digging deeper for inspiration.
In the early ’60s, he was the prince of soul at Motown, blessed with classic good looks and a three-octave range. Part choir boy and part bad boy, Marvin rocked tuxedos and mohair suits from “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” to his classic duets with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell. The result was jukebox pop, a joyful noise.
But innocence gave way to social unrest at the hinge of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Gaye rebelled against police violence, race riots, Vietnam, and losing his good friend Terrell to cancer. In 1971, he released the instant classic What’s Going On and with it he debuted a new look that communicated a new seriousness. The album cover shows Gaye in an empty playground in the rain, wearing a wide lapel leather jacket and suit: a gentleman concerned about the future, connected to reality. This was no time for fooling around.
Marvin Gaye’s music endures, hitting notes from soul, jazz, rhythm and blues, and anticipating aspects of hip-hop, as hundreds of samples attest. But in a career of fearless change, his most enduring look came with the album cover 1973’s Let’s Get It On, an ode to sex with a side order of activism. This is the look that lives on, classic cool that’s eternally hip: his snap-front western shirt, layered over an army green t-shirt, pale jeans, boots, and a knit beanie that a Brooklyn barista would immediately steal. Gaye looks authentically himself, not dressed for the camera but deeply comfortable in his own skin. And perhaps that’s why this uniform of rebellion remains beloved to this day.
Designers from Tokyo to Kansas City to New York work painstakingly to recreate these iconic pieces, because they are classics that act as a blank canvas, allowing different types of men to express their own style. Overdyed t-shirts, salvage denim, worn-in work boots are all classic items that allow men to get away with saying, “I care about looking good, but I just threw this together.” The look is comfortable but not precious, cool but unpretentious. Four decades later, in a decidedly more diverse America, we’ve still “Got to Give It Up” for Marvin Gaye.