The Final Revival of Opal & Nev

Written by Dawnie Walton
Review by Jill E. Marshall

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is an oral history of a fictional 1970s duo, Opal Jewel and Nev Charles. All the usual rock ‘n’ roll drama is here: wild performances, drug addictions, love affairs, creative differences. But the real conflict of the book revolves around race. Opal is a Black woman who started performing in churches in Detroit and Alabama. Nev is a British singer-songwriter with roots in folk. Both musicians are larger than life, and their musical visions, worldviews, and egos inevitably clash.

The short-lived duo’s fame stems from a violent, deadly riot during their biggest show in 1971. Opal and Nev were immortalized in a photo that went “viral” in its time, and again years later. In 2016, the editor of the oral history, journalist Sunny Shelton, tries to make sense of this pivotal moment, both for its cultural relevance and its impact upon her own life. The publication of the oral history coincides with a reunion show at a major music festival. The revival is similarly fraught and further reveals rifts between Opal and Nev.

What makes this book shine is its focus on not only the band and how they tell their history but also the fans and how they make meaning of music and the people who create it. As a rock journalist, Sunny embodies the fan’s perspective, and as a successful Black woman in the business, she questions the motives of the gatekeepers, who are mostly white men. Sunny’s voice is the most fluid and compelling of all the characters and brings the oral history into the present.

A recommended nonfiction pairing is Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll by Maureen Mahon (Duke Univ. Press, 2020).