*President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were on hand to salute the 2011 class of Kennedy Center Honorees on Sunday at the Kennedy Center in Washington. CBS will broadcast the show on Dec. 27.
Actress Meryl Streep, pop singer Neil Diamond, Broadway singer Barbara Cook, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins were all celebrated for receiving the nation’s top award for those who have influenced American culture through the arts.
Caroline Kennedy, who hosts the show as part of a living memorial to her father, John F. Kennedy, acknowledged her personal connection to Diamond, calling him “a Brooklyn lad with a gift of melody who grew into a solitary man, ‘reaching out, touching me.’” It draw big laughs as the crowd of celebrities and politicians recalled that Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” was named for her. “I’m going to have to thank her for that,” Diamond said before the show, noting that the song is a story about him and his former wife. But he took the name from Kennedy.
Smokey Robinson sang “Sweet Caroline” with help from Kennedy and fans brought in from Boston’s Fenway Park where it’s a favorite anthem. Lionel Richie, who sang, “I am… I said,” told the Associated Press he got into the music business because he wanted to be Diamond. “He’s a great storyteller,” Richie said. “He’s not an acrobatic singer. Basically he told the story in a very simple voice.”
Earlier President Obama lauded the actors and musicians at the White House. “They have different talents, and they’ve traveled different paths,” Obama said. “And yet they belong here together because each of tonight’s honorees has felt the need to express themselves and share that expression with the world.”
He said everyone has that desire for self-expression in common. “That’s why we dance, even if, as Michelle says, I look silly doing it,” he added to laughter.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew home between visits to Myanmar and Germany to honor the artists with a dinner Saturday night. After visiting the isolated Southeast Asian country also known as Burma, Clinton said such U.S. artists have worldwide influence by using their freedom of creativity. “You may not know it, but somewhere in a little tiny room in Burma or even in North Korea, someone is desperately trying to hear you or to see you, to experience you,” Clinton said. “And if they are lucky enough to make that connection, it can literally change lives and countries.”
Rollins, 81, is a jazz saxophonist who has shared the stage with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. “America is the home of jazz. It’s what we started,” he said. “By the way, hip hop music is a part of jazz, believe it or not.”
Friend Bill Cosby marveled about how he has heard Rollins’ distinctive sax around the world in Greece, Hong Kong, Italy — and found so many people who knew the musician’s work. “All over the world, Sonny Rollins,” Cosby said.
Benny Golson and Herbie Hancock joined in playing some of Rollins’ tunes. Fellow sax player and former President Bill Clinton said earlier that he has been a fan since the age of 15 or 16 when he bought his first Rollins LP and played it until it was worn out. “His music can bend your mind, it can break your heart, and it can make you laugh out loud,” Clinton said. “He has done things with improvisation that really no one has ever done.”