Awards come in countless varieties, but none are more prestigious to American performing artists than the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s ultimate lauding of living cultural treasures. This year’s crop, the 33rd annual, includes country singer-songwriter Merle Haggard, composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, director-choreographer Bill T. Jones, singer-songwriter Paul McCartney and television personality-mogul Oprah Winfrey. Ceremony is Dec. 5 in D.C.
“Merle Haggard is such a remarkable artist when you think about where he started out,” says Kris Kristofferson, a longtime admirer and friend of the honoree. “I can’t think of anybody from San Quentin who came to where he has. And he’s still writing great songs. He’ll probably be creative until they throw dirt on him. I don’t know anybody who’s as broad-minded and fair-minded and still concerned about things that people our age don’t always care about anymore.”
“Paul McCartney is one of very few musicians who have excelled at all aspects of a musical life,” says singer-songwriter John Fogerty, another musical icon of the 1960s. “It would have been enough that he possesses one of the best rock ‘n’ roll voices ever and one of the best ballad voices of all time, but he is overflowing with musical gifts. However, it is his songwriting that most inspires me. Paul’s early songs with John Lennon and later as a solo artist have stood the test of time and are today revered as some of the most memorable and wonderful songs the world has ever known.”
“There are certain archetypical personalities that people just connect with,” Dr. Phillip McGraw (better known as TV’s Dr. Phil) says, describing his friend and media mentor Oprah Winfrey. “You can’t be around Oprah and not feel better than you did before. And over the last 25 years, people have this appointment television with her. Her show offers them humor, camaraderie, compassion. She has this impact on people; she lifts them up. And what she does is an art. She has become a one-stop shop for people to gain skills, information and inspiration in living their lives. This is a place that people can go every day for free and connect with somebody that makes their day better and makes their life better. She delivers that to people’s living rooms every day for free. What a tremendous treasure she is to America, and to the world.”
Bill T. Jones
“Bill T. Jones’ artistic achievements leave one amazed at the number of firsts and altogether stunning work that have come from this mind and body,” says soprano and KCH laureate Jessye Norman, a friend and collaborator of Jones. “He is not of the thought that there is a physical standard for the body of a dancer, but rather that the soul is that portion of a being that is on display in dance, and that the physical self is but a conduit, a vessel.”
“Nobody writes musicals like Jerry Herman,” says actress Angela Lansbury, who won Tonys as best actress in two Herman shows, “Mame” and “Dear World.” “He’s written not one but probably 10 great songs. And though they belong to an era that is long gone, youngsters are learning a lot from his work, because his songs are so musically satisfying. They — and he — will go on forever.”