I want to start by thankingeveryone whodedicates themselves to making the Kennedy Center such a wonderfulplace for the Americanpeople to experience the arts -- David Rubenstein, theKennedy Center trustees, and of course,Michael Kaiser, who will conclude 13years of tremendous service as the president of theKennedy Center nextyear. (Applause.) So on behalf of Michelle and myself, we wantto all thankMichael so much for the extraordinary work that he has done.
As always, this celebrationwouldn’t be what it is without the enthusiasm of the co-chair ofthePresident’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, George Stevens. George. (Applause.)And his son,Michael. And together, for years they’veput on this event to honor the artistswhose brilliance has touched our lives.
President Kennedy once said ofsuch creative genius that, “The highest duty of the writer,the composer, theartist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where theymay.”Now, that’s easy to say when -- asthey do for these artists -- the chips usually fall in yourfavor, whether atWoodstock or the Oscars or elite venues all over the world.
But the fact is that the diversegroup of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven’tjust proventhemselves to be the best of the best. Despite all their success, all their fame,they’ve remained true tothemselves -- and inspired the rest of us to do the same.
Growing up in Harlem, MartinaArroyo’s parents told her she could be and do anything. Thatwas until she said that she wanted to bean opera singer. (Laughter.) Her father -- perhaps notfully appreciatingthe versatility required of an opera singer -- said he didn’t want hisdaughterto be like a can-can girl. (Laughter.) In her neighborhoodback then, opera was not theobvious career path. And there weren’t a lot of opera singers wholooked like her that shecould look up to.
But Martina had a dream shecouldn’t shake, so she auditioned relentlessly and jumped atany role she couldget. Along the way, she earned money byteaching and working as a socialworker in New York City. And when she got a call from the MetropolitanOpera asking her to fill inthe lead for “Aida,” she was sure it was just afriend pulling her leg. It wasn’t untilthey calledback that she realized the request was real, and she just aboutfell over in shock. But in thatbreakoutrole she won fans around the world, beloved for her tremendous voice andunparalleledgrace.
Martina has sung the greatroles: Mozart’s Donna Anna, Puccini’sMadame Butterfly, Verdi’sLady Macbeth, and, of course, Aida. She’s played the world’s stages, fromCincinnati to Paris toIsrael. She’sbroken through barriers, broadening our notion of what magnificent artists looklikeand where they come from.
And along the way, she’s helpedpeople of allages, all over the world, discover the art form thatshe loves sodeeply. For a lot of folks, it wasMartinaArroyo who helped them see and hear and love thebeauty and power ofopera. And with hercharitablefoundation, she is nurturing the nextgeneration of performers -- smart,talented, driven,and joyous, just like her. For moving us with thepower of her voice and empowering others tosharetheirs too, we honor Martina Arroyo. (Applause.)
Herbie Hancock played his firstconcerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was11 years old. Two years later, he heard a classmate playjazz piano at a variety show andthought, “That’s my instrument, and he can dothat? Why can’t I?” It turned out he could. (Laughter.)
By 23, Herbie was playing withMiles Davis in New York and on his way to becoming a jazzlegend. And he didn’t stop there. In the seventies, he put his electricalengineering studies towork and helped create electronic music. In the eighties, his hit “Rockit” became ananthem for afledging new genre called hip-hop. At one recent show, he played alongside an iMac and fiveiPads. (Laughter.) And a few years ago, he became the first jazz artist in 43 years to winaGrammy for best album.
But what makes Herbie so specialisn’t just how he approaches music; it’s how heapproaches life. He tours the world as a UNESCO GoodwillAmbassador. He’s done so manybenefitconcerts that Joni Mitchell once gave him a watch inscribed with thewords: “He played realgood forfree.” (Laughter.) And we know this because he’s played here forfree a lot. (Laughterandapplause.) We work Herbie, I’m tellingyou. (Laughter.)
But we just love the man. Michelle and I love this man, not justbecause he’s from Chicago.Not justbecause he and I had the same hairdo in the 1970s. (Laughter.) Not just because he’sgot that spooky Dorian Gray doesn’t-get-olderthing going on. (Laughter.) It is his spirit, it ishis energy -- whichis relentless and challenging, and he’s always pushing boundaries. Herbieonce said of his outlook, “We’re goingto see some unbelievable changes. And Iwould rather beon the side of pushing for that than waiting for somebody elseto do it.”
Well, Herbie, we are glad thatyou didn’t wait for somebody else to do what you’ve done,because nobody elsecould. For always pushing us forward, wehonor Herbie Hancock. (Applause.)
When a 22-year-old Carlos Santanatook the stage at Woodstock, few people outside hishometown of San Franciscoknew who he was. And the feeling wasmutual. Carlos was in such a -- shall wesay -- altered state of mind that he remembers almost nothing about theotherperformers. (Laughter andapplause.) He thought the neck of hisguitar was an electricsnake. (Laughter.)
But that did not stop Carlos andhis band from whipping the crowd into a such frenzy witha mind-blowing mix ofblues, and jazz, and R&B, and Latin music. They’d never heardanything like it. And almost overnight, Carlos Santana became a star.
It was a pretty steep climb for ayoung man who grew up in Mexico, playing the violin fortourists, chargingfifty cents a song. But as a teenager,Carlos fell in love with the guitar.Hedeveloped a distinctive sound that has drawn admirers from Bob Dylan to HerbieHancock.And he gave voice to a Latinocommunity that had too often been invisible to too manyAmericans. “You can cuss or you can pray with theguitar,” Carlos says. He found a way todoboth. (Laughter.)
And today, with 10 Grammys underhis belt, Carlos is considered one of the greatestguitarists of all time. And he’s still attracting new fans. Back in 2000, his album “Supernatural”beatout Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys to get to the Number 1 on thecharts. Kidswere listening to Carloswho hadn’t even heard of Woodstock.
But despite all his success,Carlos says he still feels blessed to “be able to play a piece ofwood withstrings and touch people’s hearts.” Sofor blessing all of us with his music, we honorCarlos Santana. (Applause.)
Now, when you first becomePresident, one of thequestions that people ask you is, what’s really goingonin Area 51? (Laughter.) When I wanted to know,I’d call ShirleyMacLaine. (Laughter.) I think I justbecame the first President toever publicly mentionArea 51. How’sthat, Shirley? (Laughter andapplause.)
We love Shirley MacLaine. She’sunconventional, and that makes herincomparable --with nearly 60 years of reign as one of the mostcelebratedstars in movie history to prove it. “Thereare some performers that are indelible,” said one fan aboutShirley. “We fall early and we fallhardfor them and we follow them for the rest of their lives.” Now, that fan just happens to be alegend inher own right, who we honored here two years ago -- Meryl Streep. But Meryl is notthe only one who fell hard.
Shirley has been drawing fans,including me, since -- well, not since she first lit up the bigscreen --because in 1955 she was in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry,” butshe’s stillspitting fire with the same old spunk, most recently playing theAmerican grandma in “DowntonAbbey,” which Michelle I think got some earlypreviews for. (Laughter.) Along the way, Shirleyhas racked up justabout every Hollywood award that is out there. That’s why her nickname, “Powerhouse,” is so fitting. The truth is Shirley earned that nickname forhitting the most homeruns on the boys’ baseball team when she was a kid. But I’d say that it still works pretty welltodescribe her today.
And that’s because ShirleyMacLaine’s career isn’t defined by a list of film roles andmusicalperformances. Through raucous comedies,and stirring dramas, and spirited musicals,Shirley has been fearless and she’sbeen honest, and she’s tackled complicated characters,and she’s revealed agrittier, deeper truth in each one of those characters -- giving everyaudiencethe experience of cinema at its best. It’s a motto she has lived by: “Don’t be afraid togo out on a limb. That’s where all the fruit is.” For her risk-taking, for her theatrical brilliance,for her limitlesscapacity for wonder, we honor this American powerhouse -- ShirleyMacLaine. (Applause.)
And finally, in a world full ofbrilliant musicians, there’s only one Piano Man. The son of aJewish father who left Germanyfor America to escape the Nazis, Billy Joel started piano lessonsas a boygrowing up on Long Island. His fatherwas a classical pianist, so that was Billy’s trainingtoo -- until the night heand millions of Americans watched The Beatles play the Ed SullivanShow. Most people thought, “I want to hear moremusic like that.” But Billy thought, “Iwant tomake my own music like that.” And from then on, it was all rock and roll to him.
With lyrics that speak of loveand class and failure and success, angry young men and thejoy of becoming afather, he’s become one of the most successful musicians in history,sellingmore than 150 million records.
Above all, Billy Joel sings aboutAmerica: About the workers living inAllentown after thefactories closed down. About soldiers home from the war, forever changed, bidding“GoodnightSaigon.” Commercial fishermen strugglingto make a living in the waters off of LongIsland, sailing the DowneasterAlexa. The sights and sounds of thatcity like no other, which canput anyone in a “New York State of Mind.” And of course, the rag-tag bunch of regularsat thebar where he started out, shouting at him again and again to “sing us asong.”
Billy Joel probably would havebeen a songwriter no matter where he was born. But we arecertainly lucky that he ended up here. And the hardworking folks he’s met and themusic thathe’s heard across our nation come through in every note and everylyric that he’s written. Foran artistwhose songs are sung around the world, but which are thoroughly,wonderfullyAmerican, we honor Billy Joel. (Applause.)
So, Martina Arroyo, HerbieHancock, Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine, Billy Joel -- each ofour brilliant honorees has given us somethingunique and enriched us beyond measure, asindividuals and as a nation. Together they bring us closer to PresidentKennedy’s vision of thearts as a great humanizing and truth-tellingexperience.
Their triumphs have lifted ourspirits and lifted our nation and left us a better and richerplace. And for that we will always be grateful. So we thank you all.
God bless you, and please join mein saluting one more time our remarkable 2013 KennedyCenter Honorees. (Applause.)