Warwick, 82, was referring to the 45-year tradition honoring, as the Kennedy Center phrases it, artists who have had “an impact on the rich tapestry of American life and culture through the performing arts.”
The 46th class of honorees also includes actor and comedian Billy Crystal, opera star Renée Fleming, Bee Gees singer-songwriter Barry Gibb, and hip-hop pioneer and actress Queen Latifah, the arts center announced Thursday.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Crystal said. “There’s a real special thing about it, because it’s not a competition. It’s an appreciation.”
“It’s a pretty powerful night in America for American art,” Latifah said. “To be part of that is very profound.”
The Dec. 3 ceremony in the 2,364-seat Opera House will be hosted by former honoree Gloria Estefan and will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. A cadre of celebrity guests, top secret until the night of, will take to the stage to celebrate the honorees. The show will be broadcast later on CBS and streamed on Paramount Plus.
“I think it’s kind of fun to be celebrating hip-hop at the same time we’re celebrating a guy who made disco and pop music so ubiquitous,” Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter said, referring to Gibb. “Having three women who are so strong, who have remade themselves in so many different kinds of ways and have had such extraordinary careers is central to this as well.”
Every honoree in the 46th class is a multi-hyphenate (if not a multi-multi-multi-hyphenate). Crystal writes books, directs and acts. Fleming sings but also advocates for research at the intersection of arts, health and neuroscience. Queen Latifah has dominated both airwaves and silver screens.
“These are artists who have not done just one thing, but have re-created themselves,” Rutter said. “To me, that’s what a true artist is: always discovering new art, trying to grow, trying to make the world a better place through their art, and I think that is really true about these five.”
“This is one of the honors we’ve been chasing for many years now,” Warwick said. So, naturally, she’s thrilled that “they finally recognized a body of work over these past 60 years.”
That body of work includes more than 100 million records sold and 60 hits on the charts — including 19 consecutive Top 100 singles with the songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. She has used her music to power her activism, such as the first recording dedicated to AIDS awareness — the 1985 No. 1 hit “That’s What Friends Are For” with Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder.
Recently, Warwick has become known to a new generation as a beloved Twitter personality and “Saturday Night Live” character. She eventually made a surprise appearance on that show.
Now Warwick is ready for her moment on the Opera House balcony. But, she added, “a little sadness comes along with it as well, because both Burt and Hal are no longer with us to enjoy this with me. But, you know, they’re looking down smiling, I’m sure.”
Billy Crystal, 75, was speechless when he learned of the honor, an unusual state for the lifelong entertainer. “I was just totally, totally in shock, I have to say. Immediately very emotional about it. I’m not a man of few words, but all I had was a few words. Which was ‘Really? Wow. Are you sure it’s not Bill Kristol, the Republican?’” he joked.
“I’ve been entertaining pretty much my whole life,” Crystal added. “And I thought about that instantly, about how fast this has gone.”
Crystal’s love of entertaining grew out of trying to make his parents laugh as a 5-year-old in their Long Island home. He would eventually embark on a career with a stint on SNL, as an acclaimed awards show host, a stand-up comic and star of such comedies as “City Slickers” and “When Harry Met Sally ….”
He would go on to write and direct films, write five books, appear on Broadway stages, win Emmy and Tony awards and, in 2007, receive the Kennedy Center’s other great honor, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
“It’s all just been this wonderful life, in all different areas and venues of entertainment and caring about people and trying to do the right thing,” Crystal said, emotion filling his voice.
The hardest thing about the honor, though, was knowing he was an honoree for six weeks but being able to only tell Janice, his wife of 53 years. (On Father’s Day, he broke down and told his daughters, but let’s keep that between us. “I couldn’t not tell them,” he said.)
Barry Gibb, 76, also described being speechless upon hearing the news. “At this time of life, it’s not something you expect,” he said, describing his feelings as “stunned, proud and honored.”
Rated by Guinness World Records as one of the two most successful songwriters in pop history (the other being Paul McCartney), it’s not surprising Gibb is joining such musical legends as Herbie Hancock, Buddy Guy, Bruce Springsteen and McCartney himself as an honoree. He has won nine Grammy Awards, been inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and been knighted in his homeland of England.
Gibb wrote songs for everyone from Frankie Valli to Diana Ross to fellow honoree Dionne Warwick, but he’s best known as a member of the Bee Gees, alongside his brothers Robin and Maurice.
“I think if the three of us would have been around today, it would have been the three of us,” Gibb said. “Maybe all four,” he added, referring to his younger brother Andy, who performed as a solo artist. Gibb is the last surviving brother.
The group, known for such hits as “Stayin’ Alive” and “To Love Somebody,” sold more than 220 million records and clocked 21 chart-toppers in the United States and Britain.
“How did we do all that?” Gibb joked. “It sounds exhausting!”
Queen Latifah, 53, thought she might be a bit young to be named a Kennedy Center honoree, but then she reflected on the fact that her first album came out when she was 19. “I guess I did start kind of young,” she said. So maybe it’s right on time.
Or maybe a little late. Latifah said she wishes that her mom, who died in 2018, could see it happen.
“My [creative] partner Shakim was the one who told me, and he was one of my mother’s students,” Latifah said.” We’ve been together my whole career, so he just got a little teary-eyed as well and said, ‘I wish your mother could be here to see this. This is a really, really proud moment for us to see all that stuff that we started as teenagers paid off in such an amazing way.’”
Since that first record, Latifah has won Emmy and Grammy awards and been nominated for an Oscar. In addition to dominating the airwaves as the First Lady of Hip-Hop, she has built an impressive acting career with roles in such diverse movies as “Jungle Fever” and “Chicago” and the television show “The Equalizer.”
“Thank God for hip-hop,” she said. “It’s hip-hop music that opened the door for me to do everything I’ve done. I’m really grateful for this art form that we developed that allowed us to be able to move and shake around this entire globe.”
Opera star Renée Fleming, 64, has sung just about everywhere with just about everyone. Nobel Peace Prize ceremony? Check. Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth II? Check. At the Super Bowl? Check. With Luciano Pavarotti? Or Elton John? Or Andrea Bocelli? Or Sting? Or Joan Baez? Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.
That might be why the soprano became a goodwill ambassador for arts and health for the World Health Organization or earned five Grammys, the U.S. National Medal of Arts, the 2023 Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum, the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal and honorary doctorates from eight universities. The list goes on, but we don’t have Fleming’s lung capacity.
Even so, she was surprised when she got Rutter’s call while driving home from Lowe’s. “I said, ‘I’m running errands,’” Fleming recalled. “She just burst out laughing and said, ‘I love it when I make this call and someone’s running errands.’”
Fleming was surprised because she’s an adviser at the Kennedy Center and has performed there more than two dozen times, including at the 2004 honors ceremony, and thought that might rule her out. But Fleming is glad it didn’t, saying that she’s “incredibly excited” to receive the honor.
Maybe even more so since she knows the Kennedy Center so intimately. “That doesn’t take away from the thrill,” she said. “I think it adds to it because I know what an incredible honor it is.”