Earth, Wind & Fire Becomes First African-American Group Inducted Into Kennedy Center Honors

Earth, Wind & Fire Kennedy Center Honors
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Honorees (L-R) Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire attends the 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors at Kennedy Center Hall of States on Dec. 8, 2019 in Washington, D.C. 

Earth, Wind & Fire came into their element last night as the first African-American group to be inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors. The fusion band’s original members Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Verdine White were on hand, while EWF founder and visionary Maurice White, who died in 2016, notably was in the house in spirit.  

Linda Ronstadt, Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and Sesame Street, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year, rounded out this year’s  class. 

“You can’t play any Earth Wind & Fire songs without Maurice’s DNA being on it, so he’s always here and we’re always celebrating him and his vision,” Johnson told Billboard pre-show. “People are still coming together and having fun.”

Coming together is no small feat among the Capitol Hill crowd these days. But EWF’s tribute segment, introduced by “After the Love is Gone" co-writer David Foster, had the bipartisan audience up and dancing to the band’s fantastical hits delivered by Cynthia Erivo, John Legend, the Jonas Brothers and Ne-Yo that culminated in an ensemble finale of “September.”

The 42nd Honors hosted a particularly robust number of politicians, among them Cabinet members Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Also present were more than 40 members of Congress, including the senior Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who when mentioned by Center board chair David Rubenstein got a standing ovation as big as the honorees. 

EWF will mark 50 years of groove next summer, a milestone already on the minds of its members, whom White said have had “a special chemistry from day one, because we were all hand-picked by Maurice. He had a vision and he knew what he wanted, so here we are.” 

The trio alluded to a possible upcoming duets album, though stopped short of sharing details about potential collaborators. “We’re making a list, and checking it twice,” said Bailey. “And you’ll hear about it soon.” 

Of the group’s designation as the KCH’s first African-American band, Bailey said, “There are so many more African-American acts that are deserving and perhaps this can be the first of many more to come.”

Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter told Billboard the designation wasn’t by design. ”We don’t think about it that way. We want to make sure the slate is diverse, we want to make sure the art forms are diverse, but we didn’t say, ‘We’ve never had an African-American band before,’ ” she told Billboard.

LL Cool J, who was inducted as the Honors’ inaugural hip-hop artist in 2017 and served as emcee for this year’s event, had this to say: “You know, we’ve come a long way, but it shows you how far we have to go when we’re still talking about firsts.”

As for his own KCH first, “I’m just grateful it was me; that’s a record that can’t be broken. Impossible to break. That’s dope,” he said. 

On stage, Don Henley choked up while introducing the segment for vocal powerhouse Ronstadt, 73, who rose from the L.A. coffee house scene to release more than 30 albums and win 10 Grammys between 1969-2009. She stopped performing in 2009 after illness (diagnosed much later as supranuclear palsy) began to rob her of her vocal range. 

Emmylou Harris spoke of her “dear sister and friend,” Kevin Kline shared anecdotes from his time co-starring with Ronstadt on Broadway in The Pirates of Penzance, while Carrie Underwood, Trisha Yearwood, Aaron Neville and Latin Grammy-winning mariachi band Flor de Toloache let their renditions of some of Ronstadt’s biggest hits soar for themselves.

“She’s a huge inspiration and influence to each of us as musicians and as women in a male-dominated industry in our genre,” Flor de Toloache member Shae Fiol told Billboard. “She went forth and did everything her heart desired, and she set the example for us to do the same. We’re happy to be representing her Mexican side.”

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Pierce Brosnan came out in force for Field, who’s spent her career busting stereotypes and silencing naysayers with her sheer force of will and acting prowess. 

Hanks, who was joined on the red carpet by his wife, actor, songwriter and singer Rita Wilson, told Billboard, “She has proved everybody wrong. When they told her she couldn’t be sexy, she couldn’t be a character, that she didn’t have the gravitas to hold the stage. 

“She has proven them all wrong, and what’s unfortunate is that she had to prove that they were wrong,” Hanks added. “They were actually against her for an awfully long time. If anybody wants to emulate the career and choices and tastes of an actor, choose Sally Field.”

Tilson Thomas, who at 74 is entering his 26th—and final—season as director of the San Francisco Symphony, remains the youngest-ever conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It’s a role that came to him through serendipity when at age 24 he stepped in for conductor William Steinberg when Steinberg fell ill mid-concert at a New York show.

Among countless roles, he three decades ago co-founded Florida’s New World Symphony, a musical laboratory of sorts where he’s looking forward to spending more time. The master of collaborating with artists unconventional in the classical space —Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich took the stage last night to fete his friend “MTT” after Metallica and the SF Symphony recently gigged together—is most looking forward to collaborating with a different kind of composer—himself. 

“After a lifetime of working and developing and premiering a lot of other people’s work, right now my main focus is to bring forward my own work,” he said pre-show.

Now in their fifth decade, DC’s premier awards event has been mixing things up a bit of late. Last year the creators of Hamilton received an unprecedented honor for creating a transformative work “that defies category.” This year the Center again broke the mold with the induction of the first-ever TV show—Sesame Street. 

Creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, plus a gaggle of Muppets were on hand to mark the occasion, which took an unexpected bittersweet turn. Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who brought to life both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, died just hours before the show at age 85. Spinney’s residence on Sesame Street spanned five decades; he retired last October.

As a tribute to Spinney, humans and puppets in attendance adorned their attire with a single yellow feather. “He was really important to all of us and a mentor to all of us, and we’re all still kind of reeling,” Elmo puppeteer Ryan Dillon told Billboard. “I think the world has lost a true American icon. But we’ve all got a little bit of Bird with us tonight.”

The series received a spirited, if slightly awkward (Big Bird sitting on Hanks’ lap in the audience didn’t quite pan out) tribute featuring actor/director Lucy Liu, Cedric the Entertainer and Joseph Gordon Levitt, who lauded it for pedaling “kindness and acceptance of others—something we could all use more of.” Country artist Thomas Rhett, whose debut on the Street is slated to air in the coming months, sang his praises of the show.

The 42nd Kennedy Center Honors will air on CBS on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 8pm. The date marks a departure from the long-running schedule that saw the event air during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

Melinda Newman contributed to this report.