Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Martina Arroyo were honored for their lifetime of contributions to American culture at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday during the star-studded 36th annual Kennedy Center Honors gala, preceded by a reception at the White House.
“The fact is that the diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven’t just proven themselves to be the best of the best,” President Barack Obama said during the reception. “Despite all of their success and their fame, they’ve remained true to themselves — and inspired us to do the same”
The Associated Press reported that Tony Bennet was on hand at the Washington, D.C. gala, hosted by actress Glenn Close in place of U. S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, to open the tribute to Joel with a speech. Don Henley, Garth Brooks, Rufus Wainwright and Panic! At the Disco singer Brendon Urie each performed a selection of Joel’s hits before all taking the stage to join Wainwright for his rendition of “Piano Man,” which inspired much of the audience to sing along, as well.
“Above all, Bill Joel sings about America,” Obama said while noting a number of the Long Island native’s biggest hits, like “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon,” inspired by the American experience. “Billy Joel probably would have been a songwriter no matter where he was born, but we are certainly lucky that he ended up here. The hard-working folks he’s met, and the music that he’s heard across this nation comes through every note and lyric that he’s written.”
Kathy Bates took the stage to speak when it was MacLaine’s turn for the spotlight, while Anna Kendrick sang “It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish” from Broadway musical “Seesaw,” and Sutton Foster and Patina Miller sang selections from “The Pajama Game.”
“Shirley MacLaine’s career isn’t defined by a list of film roles and musical performances, through raucous comedies and stirring dramas and spirited musicals — Shirley’s been fearless and she’s been honest and has tackled complicated characters, and she’s revealed the grittier, deeper truth in each one of those characters, giving every audience the experience of cinema at its best,” Obama said. “For her risk taking, for her theatrical brilliance, for her limitless capacity for wonder, we honor this American powerhouse.”
Santana joined previous honorees Plácido Domingo and Chita Rivera to become one of the few Latinos to receive the Kennedy Center Honor, and was the first to be treated during the evening. Fher Olvera, the lead singer of the Mexican rock band Mana, led off with a medley of Santana songs, inlcuding”Corazon Espinado,” ”Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va.”
Harry Belafonte paid tribute to the 66-year-old Mexican immigrant with a speech that recognized “the citizen of the world” for his influence on American music, as well as his humanitarian efforts.
During the reception, Obama credited the Grammy winner for giving “a voice to a Latino community that had too often been invisible to too many Americans.”
Hancock received recognition at the gala from rapper Snoop Lion for his impact on the birth of hip hop with 1983’s Grammy-award winning single “Rockit,” and Bill O’Reilly credited the jazz artist for being a “remarkable American.”
“What makes Herbie so special isn’t just how he approaches music, it’s how he approaches life,” Obama said. “He’s done so many benefit concerts that Joanie Mitchell once gave him a watch inscribed with words: ‘He played real good for free.’ And We know this, because he’s played here for free a lot.”
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor led the tributes for opera singer Arroyo, who began her career with a breakthrough role in the New York’s Metropolitan Opera 1965 production of “Aida.”
“For a lot of folks it was Martina Arroyo who helped them see and hear and love the beauty and power of opera. With her charitable foundation she is nurturing the next generation of performers — smart, talented, driven and joyous just like her,” Obama said. “For moving us with the power of her voice, and empowering others we honor Martina Arroya.”
Watch Obama deliver his remarks at the White House in the video above. The gala, however, will air Dec. 29 on CBS.