Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine, three others recognized at Kennedy Center Honors
December 8th, 2013
03:05 PM ET
8 months ago

Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine, three others recognized at Kennedy Center Honors

Washington (CNN) – Washington mixed with the world of arts Sunday night at the 36th annual Kennedy Center Honors, which recognizes artists from the stage, screen and radio.

President Barack Obama hosted the five honorees at the White House for a reception before attending the event at the Kennedy Center, which is set to air December 29 on CBS.

The honorees were opera singer Martina Arroyo, actress Shirley MacLaine and musicians Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana and Billy Joel.
Here's a look at the five artists:

Billy Joel

Joel, 64, is a six-time Grammy Award nominee and 23-time nominee who has sold more than 150 million albums.

The celebrated piano player, singer and songwriter, known for his deep ties to New York, recently signed a deal to perform at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan once a month, starting in January.

He's held 46 shows at the venue, according to James L. Dolan, executive chairman of The Madison Square Garden Company.

Joel got started in his career playing at a piano bar during high school to bring home some money for his family. Because he missed so much class for work, he was unable to graduate, so he decided to focus on his music career.

"I told them, 'To hell with it. If I'm not going to Columbia University, I'm going to Columbia Records, and you don't need a high school diploma over there,' " Joel said, according to biographical information on the Kennedy Center Honors website.

The President recognized a number of Joel's song at the White House, including "New York State of Mind" and "Goodnight Saigon."

"With lyrics that speak of love and class and failure and success, angry young men and the joy of becoming a father, he's become one of the most successful musicians in history," Obama said.

Speaking on the red carpet before the awards ceremony, Joel said he was flattered to receive the honor.

"This is an award from the nation, this is from America. It's kinda official. It's great to be in the nation's capital," he said.

Shirley MacLaine

The Kennedy Center Honors adds one more big accomplishment for MacLaine, 79, who's won a best actress Oscar for her role in "Terms of Endearment" (1983) and four best actress nominations. Her resume also includes four best actress Golden Globes - two for comedies and two for dramas.

MacLaine got her start in the arts in Richmond, Virginia, with dance and landed her first role on Broadway at 20 in "The Pajama Game."

While her film debut came in 1955 for "The Trouble With Harry," directed by Alfred Hitchcock, her more recent repertoire includes a role on the popular TV series "Downton Abbey" and in the upcoming film "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," with Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig.

She's also a prolific writer, with 14 best-selling books that focus on her life, including her belief in reincarnation.

"I thought it was terrific. I thought it was about time. I thought it was a tribute what I've done, but also it's a welcome home," she said on the red carpet, describing her first reaction to learning she was designated the honor.

Obama, at the reception, poked fun of MacLaine's claims that she has encountered UFOs.

"Now, when you first become president, one of the questions that people ask you is: 'What's really going on in Area 51? ' When I wanted to know, I'd call Shirley MacLaine," he said to laughter. "I think I just became the first President to ever publicly mention Area 51. How's that, Shirley?"

Herbie Hancock

Also known for his piano skills, Hancock enjoyed a reflection Sunday on his impact on jazz. The Chicago native began as a piano prodigy at 11, finding new ways to bring jazz to the keyboard, grand piano, synthesizers and other platforms over the years.

The 73-year-old has an Oscar and 14 Grammy Awards under his belt and counts Miles Davis as one of his mentors and musical inspirations. He played in Davis' ensemble in 1963 and began releasing his own albums the following year.

Hancock is known for exploring electronic music, thanks in part to his degree in electrical engineering and music from Grinnell College in Iowa.

The performer has been playing music for decades, with one of his latest hits being the 2008 album, "Possibilities," in which he paired up with artists such as Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and Sting.

"It was so fantastic. I couldn't believe it," Hancock said Sunday on learning that he would be recognized. "I was completely silent for a few seconds. The first thing out of my mouth was 'wow.' I couldn't imagine - I still can't imagine my name being on that list."

Carlos Santana

Santana, 66, marks another musician whose resume includes jazz, along with an eclectic range of genres, from rock to blues to soul.

The guitar player was born in Mexico to a father who played the violin in a mariachi band. His family later moved to San Francisco, where Santana got started with his own band and performed at the Fillmore auditorium, followed by his appearance at Woodstock.

"Carlos was in such a - shall we say - altered state of mind that he remembers almost nothing about the other performers," Obama said at the reception, joking about Santana's performance at Woodstock. "He thought the neck of his guitar was an electric snake."

"But that did not stop Carlos and his band from whipping the crowd into a such frenzy with a mind-blowing mix of blues, and jazz, and R&B, and Latin music," the President continued.

"They'd never heard anything like it. And almost overnight, Carlos Santana became a star."

Of Santana's 10 Grammy Awards, nine of them came in 2000 from his megahit "Supernatural" with Rob Thomas.

Martina Arroyo

Transitioning to opera, the show also recognized 76-year-old Arroyo, an internationally renowned opera singer who got her start in the same city she was grew up in: New York.

"In her neighborhood back then (Harlem), opera was not the obvious career path. And there weren't a lot of opera singers who looked like her that she could look up to," Obama said at the White House. "But Martina had a dream she couldn't shake, so she auditioned relentlessly and jumped at any role she could get."

Born to a Puerto Rican father and an African American mother, Arroyo graduated from Hunter College in the Upper East Side at 19. She started singing at Carnegie Hall in 1958 and quickly moved to the Metropolitan Opera, where she performed 199 times.

Some of her most famous roles include appearances in "Aida" and "Les Huguenots."

In 1976, she was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1976 to the NEA's National Council on the Arts and became a familiar name in American households through her more than 20 appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

But her new role as a Kennedy Center honoree, she said Sunday, has quickly become a major highlight in her life.

"It's the highest honor that a performer could ever receive in the United States. It's a magnificent honor to receive. It's something that you never forget," she said.


Filed under: 2013 • Michelle Obama • President Obama
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Thomas

    Billy Joel , why ?

    December 9, 2013 01:16 am at 1:16 am |