WASHINGTON - The eclectic influence of Billy Joel was on display at the John F. Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts Sunday night, as musicians from the worlds of jazz, country, emo and rock paid tribute to The Piano Man.
"Billy Joel is so much more than a piano man," said his friend Tony Bennett, who said the Hicksville native was adding to the American Songbook. "He's our poet and our pal."
Don Henley offered an achingly simple version of "She's Got a Way." Garth Brooks provided a country-tinged version of "Only the Good Die Young" and a faithful take on "Allentown" and "Goodnight Saigon," backed by a gospel choir and, later, U.S. Armed Forces veterans, which drew a standing ovation and tears from many in the crowd. Rufus Wainwright hugged himself during an emotional version of "New York State of Mind," before leading the crowd in a sing-along of "Piano Man." Brendon Urie of emo rockers Panic! At the Disco delivered a dramatic version of "Big Shot."
It was part of the rich tapestry of American culture celebrated by the 36th annual Kennedy Center Honors. The event went from a performance of Verdi's "Aida" in tribute to opera singer Martina Arroyo to a hip-hop call-and-response from Snoop Dogg, who was honoring jazz great and hip-hop pioneer Herbie Hancock. Rock guitarist Carlos Santana was treated to a duet from Sheila E. and Steve Winwood, and fiery guitar solos from Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. Actress Shirley MacLaine was hailed by friend Kathy Bates and a host of Broadway stars, including Sutton Foster, Patina Miller and Anna Kendrick.
This year's honorees all viewed the nation's highest award for performers -- the American equivalent to British knighthood or France's Legion of Honor -- from the presidential box, seated next to President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who hosted the performers at a White House reception immediately before the gala, which will be broadcast on Dec. 29 by CBS.
"The diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven't just proven themselves to be the best of the best," Obama said at the reception. "Despite all their success, all their fame, they've remained true to themselves -- and inspired the rest of us to do the same."
On the red carpet, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said, "Billy is, in many ways, New York's favorite son. . . . For the country to recognize him as one of the nation's best, for his talent and his citizenship, is a great affirmation for him and for the state of New York."
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Though this year's class of Kennedy Center honorees were being hailed for their lifetime achievements in bringing American culture to the world, none of them are resting on their laurels.
Last week, Joel became a Madison Square Garden franchise, the first musician ever to sign on to a residency at a major arena. The partnership will yield a monthly Joel concert at The Garden as long as public demand continues.
Santana has a residency of his own at the House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas. MacLaine will return to the cast of the PBS sensation "Downton Abbey" starting next month. Last month, Hancock released an impressive 34-CD box set of his work, while Arroyo continues to train new generations of opera singers from around the world through her Martina Arroyo Foundation in Manhattan.
Brooks praised Joel at a State Department dinner Saturday night, saying Joel's music "can put you in shoes that you would never understand if it wasn't for that song."
Joel said on the red carpet that he was touched by having so many people -- known for excellence in politics and sports as well as music -- tell him how much they enjoyed his music. "You see all these famous people on the news and you forget that they're people too," he said. "To hear them say they've listened to your music and have gone to your shows -- I'm just stunned."