WASHINGTON -- Snow and freezing rain didn't stop a conclave of top talent from saluting this year's crop of Kennedy Center Honorees on Sunday night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
President Obama and Mrs. Obama were on hand for the 36th annual celebration of the arts, which paid tribute to the accomplishments of opera singerMartina Arroyo; pianist, keyboardist, bandleader and composer Herbie Hancock; pianist, singer and songwriter Billy Joel; actress Shirley MacLaine; and musician and songwriter Carlos Santana.
TV anchor Gayle King, actress Kathy Bates and record producer Clive Davis were among the stars who showed up to celebrate the honorees.
King found it hard to pick a favorite honoree. Of MacLaine, whom she recently interviewed on theCBS This Morning, she said, "I'm very smitten with her."
Bates is also a fan of MacLaine's: "She's been one of the most inspiring actors to me for many, many years...but most of all, I'm here (tonight) as her friend."
For MacLaine, "it's like coming home because I grew up across the river in Arlington (Va.)," the Oscar-winner said, "so that's like a big welcome-home present."
MacLaine's younger brother Warren Beatty is a previous Kennedy Center Honoree recipient, which makes them the first brother and sister to both receive the honor.
Davis, who signed both Santana and Billy Joel to recording contracts decades ago, was "very proud," he said. "It's a memorable, memorable time for me."
Santana, a Mexican-American, said of the honor, "The last time I felt like this is when I crossed the border and they gave me a wad of tickets to Disneyland and I rode the rides over and over again."
The musician appreciated that he was being given the honor by an African-Americanmale, and mentioned he told the president, "You are the embodiment of our dreams and aspirations."
Billy Joel also found it "very cool to talk to the president about music."
The honoree spoke about the uniqueness of this honor: "I remember JFK and his love of the arts, so to get this is very cool."
"There's a magic to this award that is really indescribable," said Hancock, a jazz icon.
Arroyo agreed. "Is there anything higher than this?"
As the gala got underway, a short video played of the honorees with the president at the White House just hours before they arrived at the Kennedy Center.
"Despite all their success, all their fame, they're remained true to themselves," Obama said of the six honorees.
"Their triumphs have lifted our spirits and lifted our nation and left us a better and richer place. And for that we are grateful."
Seated with the President and Mrs. Obama, the honorees were each saluted by their peers through performances and tributes. Actress Glenn Close took over the hosting duties usually performed by Caroline Kennedy, who is now serving as the U. S. Ambassador to Japan.
Santana was the first to be feted, and Harry Belafonte took to the stage to honor the Latin legend.
"We have to do something about Mexican immigration. Every day you have people like Carlos Santana coming into this country and taking jobs that should be going to real Americans!" joked Belafonte. "There is no doubt in my mind that Santana has taken my spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"What's worse is how Carlos has influenced generations of our best musicians with his unique brand of rock, blues, Afro roots, the Afro Latino groove, reggaeton, that sound from Dominican Republic, Tejano, the chicano Mexican thing...We should have built a bigger fence."
Turning serious, Belafonte called Santana "a citizen of the world."
"Carlos, you haven't transcended race and religion - really, who of us does?" Belafonte said. "But you've continued to be informed by the immigrant experience and the journey to the great American dream.
"Even without the music, you Carlos, are an essential humanitarian...but with the music, well, you're a god. ...Your music tells us to be happy...to move mountains. It tells us to love."
Following Belafonte's words and a video retrospective of Santana's life, a tribute band played the Santana hit Corazon Espinado, and Columbian singer/guitarist Juanes andRage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morrello joined in for "Black Magic Woman" and Oye Como Va. Buddy Guy, a 2012 Kennedy Center Honoree, performed (I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man, followed by a performance by Sheila E. and Steve Winwood of Everybody's Everything.
Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke about Arroyo. "Martina always had the raw talent - a soaring, lyrical, captivating voice that transports her listeners. ... I'm convinced Martina's voice couldn't be that beautiful if it weren't connected to a heart that's beautiful. She is the most giving person."
Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja performed Celeste Aida, and American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sang O Patria Mia.
Bill O'Reilly kicked off Hancock's tribute. "I know. I'm surprised, too," said the political commentator when he took to the podium, drawing lots of laughs. He went on to call Hancock a "remarkable American, remarkable artist."
"Look at him sitting up there with the President, the first lady...he's the only one not nervous about what I'm going to say. He doesn't care."
Hancock's tribute continued to be full of surprises, including Snoop Dogg rappingCantaloop, the 1993 Us3 tune that sampled Hancock's Cantaloupe Island. "Thank you for creating hip-hop," he said to Hancock at the end of the song. Mix Master Mike from the Beastie Boys jammed to Rockit.
"I've been dodging you for two days. And it's worth it!" Bates said to MacLaine on keeping her participation a secret. "Can you believe we've known each other for 20 years?"
"Yes!" hollered MacLaine from the balcony.
"You are always, my dear friend, mesmerizing," Bates continued. "Your humanity informs your work. You never judge your characters, or your friends."
In a nod to MacLaine's Broadway beginnings, Sutton Foster and Patina Miller sang selections from The Pajama Game, and actress/singer Anna Kendrick took the stage for It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish from the Broadway musicalSeesaw.
Tony Bennett called Joel "no less than a poet...a philosopher" and also noted how he is "creating a legacy through education."
For Joel's portion of the evening, the music was key. Panic! At the Disco's Brendon Urie sang Joel's Big Shot, while Don Henley performed She's Got a Way. Garth Brooks received a big cheer from the crowd before singing Only the Good Die Youngand Allentown, but it was when he was joined by veterans for Goodnight Saigon that the crowd got rocking. Rufus Wainwright sang the Joel classic New York State of Mind, and was joined by Urie, Henley, Brooks and the vets for the grand finale: Piano Man. And of course, the audience joined in on that one, too.
Tonight's gala was the conclusion of a weekend of events: On Saturday night, each honoree was presented with Kennedy Center Honors medallions at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry.
The gala will air at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Dec. 29 on CBS.