Revered actor-singer Theodore Bikel died at age 91 in July 2015, but shortly before his death, he completed work on what became his final album. The two-CD celebration of Bikel’s life, “While I’m Here,” was released Sept. 16 on Red House Records.
The first CD is a series of spoken-word reflections and stories from the Austrian-born Jewish American, whose 70-year career included stage and film acting, songwriting, musical performance, and several appearances in Atlanta, with his final local performance on closing night of the 2015 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
The CD begins with the actor-singer explaining how his great-great-grandfather in Austria chose the surname Bikel and continues with a humorous reflection on his mother before getting into his thoughts on Judaism and social justice.
“I believe in an open learning process, not a closed mind,” he says of Judaism.
“You cannot be a good Jew without being concerned about social justice,” he says on the next track.
Even at 16 spoken-word tracks, the stories are so interesting and Bikel’s voice so colorful that the CD does not get repetitive. Instead, listening to Bikel tell his stories is an enjoyable and nostalgic trip back in time.
And even more was cut from the album.
By the end of his life, Bikel had so many stories that the hours of audio needed to be cut significantly. The producers removed stories about Mary Martin, the original “Sound of Music” Maria, and about Bikel’s time on the board of the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan going electric.
What remains are Bikel’s stories about himself and a final spoken rendition of Phil Ochs’ “When I’m Gone.”
“You won’t hear me singing any songs when I’m gone,” he says. “So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”
The 17-song career musical retrospective that follows on the second CD spans Bikel’s early work in the 1950s to his last recordings during his 90th birthday concert in Los Angeles in 2014.
Most of the recordings are exclusive to this CD. Some older songs were never released. Some songs were recorded for the CD. Some were obtained from long out-of-print sources.
There are tracks in Yiddish, Hebrew, English and French, including “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music,” which was written for Bikel by Rogers and Hammerstein.
Each track, selected by producers Michael Stein, Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer and Eric Peltoniemi, showcases Bikel’s eclectic talents to the fullest extent.
The retrospective concludes with a live recording of Bikel singing “When I’m Gone” from his 90th birthday concert at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills from 2014.
“While I’m Here” is a fitting commemorative for beloved folk hero, activist and world citizen Bikel.
What: “While I’m Here”
Who: Theodore Bikel
Price: $20; redhouserecords.com/store/while-im-here