This year’s Kennedy Center honorees include musicians who span genres including pop, rock, gospel, blues, folk and classical — and an actor known for his extraordinary range.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced Thursday that actor Al Pacino, rock band the Eagles, Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, gospel and blues singer Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter James Taylor will be honored for influencing American culture through the arts.
For the Eagles, the recognition will be bittersweet. The band was tapped for the honor last year but postponed its appearance because of founding member Glenn Frey’s failing health. Frey died in January, about a month after the honors gala.
For Pacino, the star of The Godfather trilogy who has long been regarded as one of the great American actors, the honor is arguably overdue. Many of his peers who became leading men in adventurous 1970s Hollywood have already been honored, including Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford.
Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter, who’s had the job for two years, said she didn’t know why Pacino hadn’t been selected sooner.
“When I called and invited him, it was an enthusiastic yes,” Rutter told The Associated Press. “You could say all of them are overdue or all of them are exactly at the right moment. We have a great opportunity to recognize people who are still active and yet have accomplished so much.”
The honorees will be celebrated at a gala on Dec. 4, featuring performances and tributes from top entertainers. The show will be broadcast on Dec. 27 on CBS.
Here’s a look at this year’s honorees:
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the pianist was a child prodigy who gave her first concert at age 8 and moved to Europe with her family as a teenager to continue her studies.
She made her U.S. debut in 1965 at Lincoln Center in New York. Since then, she has been considered one of the world’s most prominent pianists. Her repertoire includes performances of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. She has won three Grammy awards.
Argerich, 75, said in a statement that her mother always dreamed that she would study and perform in the United States.
“My late mother would be very proud today, and I would like to share this wonderful tribute with her,” Argerich said.
One of the most successful rock bands of all time, the Eagles have sold more than 120 million albums with their signature laid-back sound, and their 1976 greatest hits album is the second biggest-selling album of all time, trailing only Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Co-founders Frey and Don Henley began writing songs together while touring as members of Linda Ronstadt’s backup band. They co-wrote most of the band’s biggest hits, including “Hotel California,” and they shared lead-singing duties.
While the band’s meticulously crafted soft rock is always associated with Southern California, Frey originally hailed from Michigan, Henley is from Texas and Joe Walsh was born in Kansas. Timothy B. Schmit, who joined in 1977, is the only native Californian.
The band was active from 1971-1980 before reuniting for a 1994 concert, Hell Freezes Over, that was recorded for a live album. Afterward, the Eagles began touring again.
“We accept this honor in memory of our comrade and fellow traveler, Eagles founder Glenn Frey,” the band said in a statement. “The members of the band hailed from different regions of this great nation and we always felt very fortunate that our music was embraced by people from all walks of life, all over the world.”
Frey’s widow, Cindy Millican Frey, will sit with the band during the ceremony, Rutter said.
Born in East Harlem and raised in the South Bronx, Pacino, 76, began to draw notice for his onstage work in the late 1960s, and he won his first Tony award in 1970. With his daring choices and deep immersion into his roles, Pacino was among the 1970s movie stars who redefined what a Hollywood leading man could look and sound like.
He had just one major film role to his credit when writer-director Francis Ford Coppola cast him as Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He reprised the role two years later in the groundbreaking sequel, The Godfather Part II, and he received Oscar nominations for both performances.
Pacino also starred in two other 1970s classics, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. He worked sparingly in the 1980s but had another string of memorable starring roles in the 1990s, including Scent of a Woman, for which he won his first Oscar after seven previous nominations. Other credits include Heat, Donnie Brasco and The Insider. More recently, he’s done memorable work in television, playing real-life figures Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector.
“I am grateful and deeply humbled by this unexpected and extraordinary honor,” Pacino said in a statement.
Staples, 76, got her start as part of a family gospel band, singing alongside her four siblings with her father, “Pops” Staples, on guitar. Her father was a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Staple Sisters’ covers of contemporary pop hits became a soundtrack for the civil rights movement. They had No. 1 hits with “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.”
In her more than 60 years as a recording artist, Staples has also worked in genres including soul, folk, pop, rock, R&B and hip hop. Prince wrote two albums for her in the late 1980s. She has also collaborated with Bob Dylan — who at one point asked her to marry him — Van Morrison, Bruce Hornsby, Chuck D., Willie Nelson and Jeff Tweedy. Both Staples and Tweedy are Chicago natives.
Her first solo album was released in 1969, and her most recent, Livin’ on a High Note, came out this year.
She’s had some memorable appearances in Washington over the years, performing with her family at Kennedy’s inauguration in 1960. She’s also performed twice at the honors ceremony, paying tribute to Paul McCartney and Al Green.
“I never dreamed I would be honored. I’m just an unknown gospel singer. And they’re honoring me at the Kennedy Center? Lord have mercy,” Staples told AP. “As a gospel singer you don’t expect to be honored along with other artists. We are looked to be the lowest on the totem pole.”
Staples is currently on tour with Dylan and his band.
“Since I’ve been on this tour, I said, ‘Bobby, I miss you so much, I wanted to see you.’ He said, you could have seen me every day if you’d married me,” Staples said. “He cracked me up, saying that.”
The son of a physician, Taylor, 68, was raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and he developed his signature finger-picking guitar style in part because he was first trained as a cellist. Paired with his warm baritone voice, his lyrical playing was featured on classic songs including “Fire and Rain” and “Something in the Way She Moves.”
His career got off to a fitful start in the late 1960s as he struggled with drug addiction, and “Carolina in My Mind,” which later became one of his signature tunes, didn’t sell well upon its initial release. He gained critical and popular success with the 1970 album Sweet Baby James, which featured vocals from Carole King, a Kennedy Center honoree last year. His greatest hits album, released in 1976, went on to sell more than 11 million copies.
Taylor has sold more than 100 million albums, won multiple Grammy awards and has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His 2015 album, Before This World, was his first to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts. He has previously performed at the honors gala.
“The prospect of attending the Kennedy Center Honors again, this time as an honoree, is astonishing,” Taylor said in a statement. “I am deeply moved to be included in such august company.”