President Obama held a reception at the White House Sunday evening for this year's recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. Those performers were Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine and Billy Joel.
Obama introduced all of the honorees and tailored his remarks to highlights in their careers.
Of Martina Arroyo: "Growing up in Harlem, Martina Arroyo’s parents told her she could be and do anything. That was until she said she wanted to be an opera singer." In her neighborhood, opera was not the obvious career path and there were not a lot of opera singers who looked like her that she could look up to, the president said. But she worked hard, and when she got the call from the Metropolitan Opera to fill in for the lead of Aida, she was sure it was a friend pulling her leg.
"It wasn’t until they called back that she realized the request was real, and she just about fell over in shock. But in that breakout role she won fans around the world, beloved for her tremendous voice and unparalleled grace. For moving us with the power of her voice and empowering others to share theirs too, we honor Martina Arroyo," closed Obama about Arroyo.
Of Herbie Hancock: "Herbie Hancock played his first concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was 11 years old. Two years later, he heard a classmate play jazz piano at a variety show and thought, 'That’s my instrument, and he can do that? Why can’t I?' It turned out he could."
"By 23, Herbie was playing with Miles Davis in New York and on his way to becoming a jazz legend. And he didn’t stop there. In the seventies, he put his electrical engineering studies to work and helped create electronic music. In the eighties, his hit “Rockit” became an anthem for a fledging new genre called hip-hop. At one recent show, he played alongside an iMac and five iPads. And a few years ago, he became the first jazz artist in 43 years to win a Grammy for best album," said Obama.
In addition to jazz, he served as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. He played so many benefit concerts, he was given a watch that said, and ‘you play real good for free.' And we know this, because he’s played here for free a lot," the president deadpanned. "We work Herbie."
Of Carlos Santana: "I am a little disappointed that Carlos Santana wore one of his more conservative shirts this evening. Back in the day, you could see those things from space. When a 22-year-old Carlos Santana took the stage at Woodstock, few people outside his hometown of San Francisco knew who he was. And the feeling was mutual. Carlos was in such a -- shall we say -- altered state of mind that he remembers almost nothing about the other performers. 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. They’d never heard anything like it. And almost overnight, Carlos Santana became a star," said Obama.
Of Shirley MacLaine: "Now, when you first become president, one of the questions that people ask you is, what’s really going on at Area 51? When I want to know, I call Shirley MacLaine [much laughter, applause]. I think I just became the first president to publicly mention Area 51," he said. "We love Shirley MacLaine, she’s unconventional and that makes her incomparable -- with nearly 60 years of reign as one of the most celebrated stars in movie history to prove it," he said.
"Shirley has been drawing fans, including me, since -- well, not since she first lit up the big screen -- because in 1955 she was in Alfred Hitchcock’s 'The Trouble with Harry,' but she’s still spitting fire with the same old spunk, most recently playing the American grandma in 'Downton Abbey,' which Michelle I think got some early previews for. Along the way, Shirley has racked up just about every Hollywood award that is out there. That’s why her nickname, 'Powerhouse,' is so fitting. The truth is Shirley earned that nickname for hitting the most home runs on the boys' baseball team when she was a kid. But I’d say that it still works pretty well to describe her today," said Obama.
"And that’s because Shirley MacLaine’s career isn’t defined by a list of film roles and musical performances. Through raucous comedies, and stirring dramas, and spirited musicals, Shirley has been fearless and she’s been honest, and she’s tackled complicated characters, and she’s revealed a grittier, deeper truth in each one of those characters -- giving every audience the experience of cinema at its best. It’s a motto she has lived by: 'Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where all the fruit is.' For her risk-taking, for her theatrical brilliance, for her limitless capacity for wonder, we honor this American powerhouse -- Shirley MacLaine," said Obama.
Of Billy Joel: "And finally, in a world full of brilliant musicians, there’s only one Piano Man," the president said. Joel has become one of the most successful musicians in history, singing about Americans like workers in Allentown after the factory closes down and soldiers returning from war, the president said.
Obama continued about Joel, "The son of a Jewish father who left Germany for America to escape the Nazis, Billy Joel started piano lessons as a boy growing up on Long Island. His father was a classical pianist, so that was Billy’s training too -- until the night he and millions of Americans watched The Beatles play the Ed Sullivan Show. Most people thought, 'I want to hear more music like that.' But Billy thought, 'I want to make my own music like that.' And from then on, it was all rock and roll to him," said Obama. "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, selling more than 150 million records."
"Billy Joel probably would have been a songwriter no matter where he was born. But we are certainly lucky that he ended up here. And the hardworking folks he’s met and the music that he’s heard across our nation come through in every note and every lyric that he’s written. For an artist whose songs are sung around the world, but which are thoroughly, wonderfully American, we honor Billy Joel, Obama closed about Joel.
"So, Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine, and Billy Joel -- each of our brilliant honorees has given us something unique and enriched us beyond measure, as individuals and as a nation. Together they bring us closer to President Kennedy’s vision of the arts as a great humanizing and truth-telling experience," said Obama. "Their triumphs have lifted our spirits and lifted our nation and left us a better and richer place. And for that we will always be grateful. So we thank you all."
The nation’s capital embraced five titans of the performing arts Sunday night at the 36th annual Kennedy Center Honors, Washington’s premiere assemblage of political and entertainment gentry. The festive ceremony that will air Dec. 29 on CBS.
Transcript of President Obama's remarks at Kennedy Center Honorees reception at White House
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John is the author of an award-winning book, the 2010 Winner of the USA National Best Book award for African American studies, published by The Elevator Group, Mr. and Mrs. Grassroots. Also available an eBook on Amazon. John is also a member of the Society of Midland Authors and is a book reviewer of political books for the New York Journal of Books. John has volunteered for many political campaigns.