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Kennedy Center honors creative excellence in the arts at annual gala

The 2021 Kennedy Center honorees: (left to right) opera star Justino Díaz, <em>Saturday Night Live </em>creator Lorne Michaels, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, entertainer Bette Midler and Motown founder Berry Gordy.<em></em>
Scott Suchman
The 2021 Kennedy Center honorees: (left to right) opera star Justino Díaz, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, entertainer Bette Midler and Motown founder Berry Gordy.

This year's Kennedy Center honorees Joni Mitchell, Bette Mider, Berry Gordy, Lorne Michaels and Justino Díaz were celebrated this weekend with a reception at The White House, a medallion ceremony at The Library of Congress and a splashy, black-tie event at the performing arts center's Opera House. The tributes and performances were filmed for a special broadcast to air on CBS on Dec. 22.

President Joe Biden and the First Lady attended the gala event Sunday night, a return to tradition that did not go unnoticed by host David Letterman. "It is very nice to see the presidential box once again being occupied," Letterman said. In President Trump's four years in office, neither he nor Melania Trump attended the Kennedy Center Honors.

Joni Mitchell was honored for her timeless, emotional songs on such albums as Court and Spark -- and Blue. "Poetically expansive" is how pianist and composer Herbie Hancock described Mitchell's classic song Both Sides Now, which she wrote when she was in her early 20s. When Mitchell was nine years old, she contracted polio. The disease weakened her left hand. When Mitchell started playing ukulele and guitar, Hancock explained, she "devised her own tunings so she could access the emotionally complex chords that she was hearing in her mind."

President Biden, First Lady Jil Biden, Vice President Harris and the 44th Kennedy Center honorees.
Michael Butcher / Kennedy Center
President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff celebrate the 44th group of Kennedy Center honorees.

In 2015, Joni Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm that nearly killed her.

"I think the polio was a rehearsal for the rest of my life," she said after receiving her Kennedy Center Honor medallion. "I've had to come back several times, for one thing, and this last one was a real whopper. But you know, I'm hobbling along there. I'm doing all right," she said to a hearty round of applause.

This year marks the Kennedy Center's 50th anniversary. Honoree Justino Díaz sang in the inaugural performance at the Kennedy Center's Opera House as the leading male role in Alberto Ginastera's Beatrix Cenci. The Puerto Rican native has shared the world's most famous stages with such renowned singers as Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland. Best known for performing villains, Díaz was Iago in Franco Zeffirelli's 1986 film version of Verdi's Otello starring Plácido Domingo. Among those paying homage to Díaz were Chita Rivera, Denyce Graves and Grace Bumbry.

The fact that Kennedy Center Honors are lifetime achievement awards in the performing arts provided fodder for Saturday Night Live cast members past and present. They couldn't resist asking why their boss, SNL creator, producer and writer Lorne Michaels was getting one. In a mock version of Weekend Update, Kevin Nealon reported, "This evening in Washington, D.C., Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, who shall remain nameless, was presented with a Kennedy Center Honor in recognition of his incredibly generous contribution." Only after a long pause for laughter did Nealon add, "to American culture."

Honoree Bette Midler has done it all: comedy, musicals, stage and screen. Her friend and The First Wives Club costar Goldie Hawn said Midler simply, "did not pay any attention to rejection." She added: "She sang. She danced. She shook her assets. She created The Divine Miss M."

Billy Porter performed a Bette Midler medley and Kelli O'Hara sang Wind Beneath My Wings.

Boxer turned songwriter and entrepreneur Berry Gordy turned an $800 loan from his family into a multimedia empire. The Motown hit machine brought the soul of Detroit to the rest of the world with artists like Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five and numerous others. Stevie Wonder recalled his first meeting with Gordy. "I was 11 years old and you said 'Ok, I heard you're good. What do you do?' And I said 'I play harmonica and I sing.' I said, 'As a matter of fact, I can sing better than Smokey Robinson.'"

The Kennedy Center Honors is as much about artistic camaraderie as it is about celebrating creative excellence. After receiving his medallion, an emotional Berry Gordy told the audience, "I am so blessed to be in the company of the other honorees, this particular group of honorees whom I have known and admired for a long, long time." Gordy continued, "to get to meet them and talk to them and let them know how much I appreciate them has been a wonderful feeling for me tonight."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.