The Kennedy Center honored a new batch of icons over the weekend, culminating with a gala performance that will be seen on CBS, Friday, December 26:
- “Godfather of Soul” James Brown and country music icon Loretta Lynn were among five stars honored in Washington on Sunday for their contributions to American culture.
Brown and Lynn joined violinist Itzhak Perlman, comedian Carol Burnett and film director Mike Nichols — whose films include “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — as this year’s Kennedy Center honorees.
The annual celebration culminated in a gala performance attended by President Bush at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.
Bush hosted the honorees at a White House reception before the performance, calling the group an “interesting mix” bound by “superior performance” throughout their careers.
The president’s father, George Bush, made an appearance at the show to congratulate Lynn — perhaps best known for the landmark hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” — on being “an American original.”
“I feel very confident in speaking for the entire Bush family in expressing our love and our respect for this national treasure, Loretta,” the elder Bush said. [Reuters]
An assortment of performers paid tribute to the honorees in performance:
- Rapper LL Cool J said Brown “broke down mental and social barriers and made it possible for me, a black kid from Queens, to stand in front of presidents and say, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.'”
Younger R&B stars covered some of Brown’s hits, with Anastacia performing “Sex Machine,” Joss Stone singing “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and Brian McKnight tackling “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
Country legend Lynn was toasted by Sissy Spacek, who played her in the film biography “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” “I loved being you, Loretta,” Spacek said. “I could’ve gone on being you for the rest of my life.”
Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Lyle Lovett and Patty Loveless performed a medley of Lynn’s hits.
Playwright Tom Stoppard saluted Nichols by noting his many other prizes. “The Mike Nichols Every Medal or None International Committee – or MNEMONIC, as we like to call ourselves – has so far awarded Mike Nichols 87 medals,” Stoppard said, for movies, plays, albums and “personal hygiene.”
Elaine May, Nichols’ one-time partner in comedy, also was on hand. Candice Bergen, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christine Baranski joined in a musical-comedy salute to Nichols’ career as director of Broadway shows, including the original production of “The Odd Couple,” and movies, including “The Graduate.” Nichols’ latest film, an adaptation of Tony Kushner’s epic play “Angels in America,” debuted Sunday on HBO.
Julie Andrews introduced Burnett as an old friend who “seems to bring out some devil in me.” Andrews joined Scott Bakula, John Schneider, Elaine Stritch, Kim Cattrall, Florence Henderson, Tim Conway and Bernadette Peters, who came onstage wearing costumes from “The Carol Burnett Show” and sang a musical tribute culminating in the show’s theme song.
Alan Alda said Perlman “plays the violin as if it could come alive, and it does.” Fellow violinist Pinchas Zuckerman led a group of students from the New York-based Perlman Music Program in a performance of Vivaldi’s “Summer” from “The Four Seasons.” [AP]
The Kennedy Center Honors website has nice bios on the honorees:
- Soul Brother Number One, the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. Dynamite-all these titles describe just one man. James Brown is arguably the most influential African-American musician in popular music in the past half-century and one of the most dynamic, exhilarating performers of our time. Singer Bonnie Raitt has said, “You couldn’t even list how many people have been influenced by him. In the Mount Rushmore of musical figures, he’d definitely be on it.”
Brown, with his impassioned vocals born of gospel and the complex rhythms of his beat, was at the forefront of not one but two major musical revolutions and has contributed invaluably to a third: In the 1960s he turned R&B into soul and a decade later reinvented his own invention when he turned soul into funk. And his music continues to be as influential as ever, as his recordings are sampled by innumerable rap and hip-hop performers. “Single-handedly, he has been the epitome of soul music,” said Chuck D of Public Enemy, one of dozens of rap groups to use Brown’s groundbreaking beats.
Brown is the recipient of the American Music Awards Award of Merit, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters.
James Brown’s life is a classic show business rags-to-riches fairy tale, with the prerequisite hard times in between. Born into poverty in the South, Brown ended up singing, dancing, and playing piano, drums, and guitar on the streets to help support his family. Though his formal education ended in seventh grade, Brown learned about gospel, and by the time he was twenty he had joined a gospel group with singer Bobby Byrd, originally knows as the Avons and then as the Flames. He changed the focus of the group from gospel to R&B as the sound of rock and roll began to dominate the airwaves, and in 1956 they had their first hit, “Please, Please, Please.” His mesmerizing onstage performances became instant classics. The blood curling screams, the flying splits, the dropping to the knee, the one-legged skate made him the star attraction and became his lifetime trademarks. His name had to be added to that of the band: James Brown and the Famous Flames…..
- Few entertainers in any field anywhere have endeared themselves to the American public as overwhelmingly, as sweetly as Carol Burnett. Burnett has played everything from nervous klutz to earth-mother, has sung everything from Tarzan yells to Sondheim anthems, has conquered television, triumphed on stage, written a best-selling memoir, as well as the Broadway hit Hollywood Arms.
Burnett’s melancholy charlady is a comedic gem as unforgettable as the best of Chaplin. Her Scarlett O’Hara opposite Harvey Korman’s Rhett Butler, her hilarious Norma Desmond, her dim, gum-chewing Miss Wiggins, and her disarmingly straightforward Everywoman before a studio audience are the stuff of television history. “The Carol Burnett Show” won a total of 22 Emmy Awards during its eleven years on CBS, and Burnett herself has hardly stood still since then. She gathered new fans in Robert Altman’s picture A Wedding, delighted in Pete ‘n Tillie opposite Walter Matthau, and made the most of the juicy role of Miss Hannigan in the film version of Annie. On stage, she created improbably, irresistible chemistry opposite Rock Hudson in I Do! I Do! and later gave one of her most complex comic creations in Moon Over Buffalo. In 1999, she blazed her way through Stephen Sondheim’s revue Putting It Together.
Her early years were not easy, but hers is also a true American success story, a classic show biz saga. Carol Burnett was born in Texas but grew up in Hollywood. Her parents died young and Carol lived mostly with her grandmother, Mabel Eudora White, the eccentric and beloved “Nanny” for whom the loving granddaughter would give a little ear-tug at the end of each television broadcast. Most of the time, the family lived on welfare…..
- Few things in life are sweeter than a real country song, and when Loretta Lynn is singing, her song is always as sweet as it rings true. Her name is synonymous with country music itself. She has sung for royalty, teamed up with Luciano Pavarotti as well as Conway Twitty, called American Presidents friends, and headlined everywhere from “The Muppet Show” to the Grand Ole Opry. Through it all, the first woman ever to become the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year has stayed faithful to her roots and strayed not at all from the music she makes best. “A song delivered by Loretta,” said her fellow country singer Roy Acuff, “is from the deepest part of her heart.”
She was born the second of eight children of Ted and Clara Webb. She was married to a serviceman at 13, became a mother at 14, and a grandmother by 29. Part Cherokee, all country, she got her name from her mother’s love for the actress Loretta Young. The story of her beginnings caries the heartbreaking simplicity and ineffable emotional resonance of a modern American myth, best told in the song, autobiography, and motion picture that carried her fame beyond the borders of country music into the world’s imagination. “I was born a coal miner’s daughter,” Lynn sang, “In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler.” ” We were poor but we had love,” the song continued, “That’s one thing my Daddy made sure of / He shoveled coal to make a poor man’s dollar / Mama rocked the babies at night / Read the Bible by a coal oil light / And everythin’ would start all over come break of morn’.”
Loretta’s husband, Oliver Vanetta Lynn, was known to his friends as Doolittle or as Mooney, for moonshine. He took Loretta to Custer, Washington, where the couple had their first of four children and Loretta continued her singing at home to her babies. Moved by his wife’s talent, Mooney bought her a guitar for her eighteenth birthday. Loretta taught herself to play, began singing in local clubs and later with a band, The Trailblazers, which included Loretta’s brother Jay Lee Webb. Mooney entered Loretta in a local talent contest that turned out to be her big break: An invitation from Buck Owens to sing on his television show. She was spotted by Don Grashey of Zero Records, who flew her to Los Angeles to make her first record. When the small label turned out to have no budget to promote “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl,” which Loretta herself had written, the singer and her husband began mailing the record to radio stations across the country….
- For nearly half a century, Mike Nichols has had such a varied and profound effect on our culture that probably no American has been left untouched by his genius. His fabled partnership with Elaine May perfected American improvisation comedy. On Broadway he has directed some of the most acclaimed box office hits of the past four decades. As a producer, Nichols brought Whoopi Goldberg to Broadway, The Remains of the Day to the screen, “Family” to television, and the musical Annie to the world. He has directed many of our favorite films and at least two that dramatically changed not only the film industry itself, but also the way we looked at movies and the way they made us feel. His first film, the 1966 taboo-busting, Oscar-winning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, famously put the final nail in the coffin of the stifling Motion Picture Production Code. With his second movie, The Graduate, Nichols created a box office sensation that made Dustin Hoffman a star and inaugurated a cycle of youth-oriented movies that ushered the American film into a new and vibrant era of creativity. The first got him an Oscar nomination, the second the award. Writing for the New York Times about Nichols’ career in film, which now includes nearly 20 motion pictures, Caryn James said: “Beneath their apparent diversity, all of Mr. Nichols’s films are concerned with the boundless promises of American life-money or justice or marital happiness—as filtered through middle-class, popular culture….But always Mike Nichols is the ultimate mainstream director, who senses the movement of American culture half a beat before the rest of us and, like a reconnaissance man, presents us with a map of the territory where we will all arrive shortly.”
A child war refugee, Nichols, who was born Michael Peshkowsky, emigrated with his family to the United States to escape the Nazis. He worked his way through college at the University of Chicago, where he decided to become an actor. After studying with Lee Strasberg in New York, he returned to Chicago, where with Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Paul Sills, and others, he formed the groundbreaking comedy troupe Second City. Soon after, Nichols and May broke from the group and their meteoric rise as a comedy team began in 1957, when they first performed in New York at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. They revolutionized the landscape of American comedy through their appearances in clubs, television, radio, and in their legendary 1960 Broadway production An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Combining dry wit and wry satire, “the world’s fastest humans” lampooned faceless bureaucracy and such previously sacrosanct institutions as hospitals, politics, funeral homes, and even motherhood. Journalist Peter Marks wrote, “For sheer urbanity, there was nothing quite like a Nichols and May routine. Their material could be as accessible as a skit about two teen-agers parked for a passionate interlude or as lofty as a parody of William Faulkner.”
The fabled partnership only lasted four years, though, and following the breakup, Nichols turned to directing and in quick succession staged Barefoot in the Park, Luv, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, and The Prisoner of Second Avenue from 1963 to 1972. Five huge hits and four Tony Awards later, Nichols had redefined the Broadway comedy for a new generation. “Mike takes you so into the play,” says Neil Simon, “you forget you’re in the theater.”….
- The world falls in love with music when Itzhak Perlman takes up his violin. A superstar by any standard and a rarity in the classical field, Perlman has taken hold of the public imagination as few violin virtuosos ever have, bringing joy to millions with his playing. Having lost the use of his legs after falling victim to polio at the age of four, Perlman always sits as he plays. But he never fails to bring audiences to their feet. Perlman’s tone has been described as aristocratic, but his playing is decidedly populist: from the most jaded music lovers to the youngest initiates whose love of music Perlman loves to encourage, it is all but impossible to remain unmoved by the musician and his music. His adventurous repertory encompasses virtually the entire classical repertory for the violin as well as some of the most challenging and exciting music of today. A master of baroque, classical, romantic and modern music, he also has lavished his intensely joyful string sounds on everything from the brave old world of klezmer to the limitless frontiers of jazz. His own arrangements of Scott Joplin’s ragtime classics have added immeasurably to performance tradition of the American repertory. His heartrending violin solos in the John Williams soundtrack score for Steve Spielberg’s Oscar-winning picture Schindler’s List proved to be one of Perlman’s own proudest achievements. His most surprising, so far, has been his operatic debut, as a bass, singing the small role of the Jailer in James Levine’s recording of Puccini’s Tosca starring Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo.
His further collaborations with musicians as varied as Domingo, Yo-Yo Ma, and Jessye Norman, together with his growing solo discography, are the stuff of recording history. He has entertained millions beyond the concert hall, with appearances on television shows from “Sesame Street” and “The Late Show with David Letterman” to the “Grammy Awards” and “Live from Lincoln Center.” He has hosted the Three Tenors Encore! concert from Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, brought his klezmer tour to the Hollywood Bowl, celebrated Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg on the 150th birthday salute to the great composer, and he has paid tribute to Dvorak in Prague. Perlman even has moved to the conductor’s podium, not only as principal guest conductor of the Detroit Symphony but also by leading the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others. Everywhere, before every sort of audience, the response to Perlman’s music most often is rapture….