WASHINGTON (AP) – An earnest Patti LaBelle praised her lifelong friend Gladys Knight. Matt Damon playfully teased his friend George Clooney-a lot-as Sheryl Crow thanked and performed “Baby Baby” fellow singer Amy Grant during Sunday’s Kennedy Center Honors.
Knight, Clooney and Grant have all been honored at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; revolutionary composer and conductor Tania León and rock band U2 were also part of this year’s class. Each year the Kennedy Center honors a select group of individuals for their artistic influences on American culture. In attendance were President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their respective spouses.
On the red carpet before the Kennedy Center show, Clooney, with his wife Amal, next to him, joked that after seeing friends like Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts he was worried his tribute would be more of a “roast.” And it’s been a bit of a roast for Clooney, even though his friends and family have shown him some obvious respect.
Longtime friend Julia Roberts set the tone by stepping out on stage in a dress emblazoned with pictures of Clooney all over it. After an introduction that alternated between funny and heartfelt, she turned to a set designed to look like a smoky bar, the kind Clooney might like. The actor’s father regaled the crowds with stories of a young George, including the time the 7-year-old — heartbroken over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 — gave his father all of his toy guns.
Damon took the funny route, joking about how Clooney once stole then-President Bill Clinton’s stationery and wrote notes in it for the other actors. Cheadle highlighted Clooney’s philanthropic work.
LaBelle called Knight her “everything,” saying they’d been friends for six decades and saw each other through laughter and tears. “We do everything together,” LaBelle said. “I am honored to honor you tonight.”
Actor and hip-hop star LL Cool J said that whenever Knight sings, he connects with people. “I heard Gladys singing ABC one time and thought I was in church,” he said.
Country music superstar Garth Brooks, citing Knight’s “roots in country music,” sang his classic “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
Crow sang one of Grant’s signature songs, “Baby Baby,” while seasoned news anchor Katie Couric talked about how young Grant was when she was discovered.
The honorees came to the theater from a White House reception where Biden praised them before a star-studded crowd in the East Room as an “outstanding group of performers.”
“Thank you for showing us the power of the arts and ‘We the People,'” Biden said.
It highlighted Clooney’s work on camera and off-screen charitable efforts, from helping the families of 9/11 victims to supporting a gun control campaign led by survivors of the Parkland school shooting.
“He’s relentless and undeterred,” Biden said. “That’s character in real life. And that’s George Clooney.
Biden hailed Grant’s voice as “a true gift from God that he shares with everyone,” thanked León for “infusing new sounds into the soul of the nation,” and said he has all of Knight’s songs on his iPhone.
“We’re going to get on that midnight train,” Biden said of Knight. “Because I speak for all Americans when I say we’d rather live in your world than be without you in ours.”
Biden, noting his love of Irish poets, called U2 “four sons of Ireland, poets in their own right” whose music “changed the world”.
“We would do well to remember today at a time when there is too much hate, too much anger, too much division here in America and, quite frankly, around the world,” Biden said. “We must remember today, as their song says: ‘We are one but we are not the same. We support each other.’”
U2 have sold 170 million albums and been awarded 22 Grammys. The band’s epic singles include “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Lead vocalist Bono has also become known for his philanthropic work to eradicate poverty and to raise awareness of AIDS.
Clooney became a household name on the TV show ‘ER’ before starring in films like ‘Three Kings’, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (and ‘Twelve’ and ‘Thirteen’), ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and this year’s “Ticket to Paradise”.
Knight and her family members started a band that would later be known as Gladys Knight & The Pips and produced their first album in 1960 when Knight was just 16 years old. Since then she has recorded dozens of albums with classic hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia”.
Grant is well known for crossover pop hits like ‘Every Heartbeat’ and ‘That’s What Love is For’. He has sold more than 30 million albums, including her 1991 record Heart in Motion, which introduced her to a wider pop audience.
León said during an interview when the honorees were announced that she didn’t expect “anything spectacular” when the Kennedy Center initially contacted her. After all, she has worked with the Kennedy Center numerous times over the years since 1980, when she was commissioned to compose music for a show.
But the 79-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner said she was stunned to learn that this time the ceremony would be for her.
León left Cuba as a refugee in 1967 and eventually settled in New York City. He is a founding member of Dance Theater of Harlem and established the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series.
Zeke Miller, AP White House correspondent, contributed to this report. Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.