Kennedy Center Honors Are Giving Them Excitations

"I am excited to be in this class of people," Diana Ross said. (By Pascal Le Segretain -- Getty Images)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Diana Ross and Brian Wilson are at the top of the charts again, but this time it's the list of Kennedy Center Honorees.

Apparently, when this year's awards were decided, someone at the center was channeling the '60s, when Ross's Supremes and Wilson's Beach Boys were blasting on the radio.

Director Martin Scorsese, pianist Leon Fleisher and actor-writer Steve Martin (who also won the center's 2005 Mark Twain Prize for humor) completed the list.

Martin, who is filming "Pink Panther Deux" in Boston, said in a statement: "I am grateful to the Kennedy Center for finally alleviating in me years of covetousness and trophy envy."

Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman said the five 2007 honorees had "transformed the way we, as Americans, see, hear and feel the performing arts."

This is the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy Center Honors, which recognize lasting contributions to the arts in America.

Wilson, 65, formed the Beach Boys in 1961 with his two younger brothers Dennis and Carl and his cousin Mike Love; he eventually added friend Al Jardine. From their home in California, they captured a youthful sound of bounce and harmony in a series of hits such as "Surfin'," "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Surfer Girl," "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice."

Wilson's post-surfing compositions are admired by a cross-section of musical architects, from Philip Glass to Paul McCartney to Burt Bacharach to the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. The Beach Boys' 1966 album "Pet Sounds" is considered a landmark recording.

Wilson is currently at the Royal Festival Hall in London, performing a new work called "That Lucky Old Sun (a Narrative)." Enjoying good reviews after opening night, Wilson said that receiving the Kennedy Center Honors was unique. "I felt very thrilled to be in the presence of these amazing artists," he said yesterday.

In a career that has had its high points and setbacks, Wilson settled on remembering the best times. "Making 'Good Vibrations' in the studio. Making 'California Girls' in the studio. And playing for 750,000 on the National Mall," he said. The Beach Boys' four-year reign at the Mall's Fourth of July celebrations came to an abrupt end in 1985 when officials decided they wanted something more "family-oriented," said a National Park Service official at the time.

The Beach Boys and the Supremes vied for control of American teens' ears in the summers of 1964 with "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Baby Love," and the next year with "Help Me Rhonda" and "Stop! In the Name of Love."

Ross, 63, came out of Detroit's Brewster-Douglass Projects as a teenager and joined friends Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard in creating a new sound, an urban amalgam of blues, R&B and pop ballads. Ross was the face of Motown. She led the trio through hit after hit -- including "Come See About Me," "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "I Hear a Symphony." Altogether, with the Supremes and as a soloist, Ross has had 70 hit singles. She also established herself as an actress, earning an Oscar nomination for her interpretation of Billie Holiday in 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues." She played Dorothy in the 1978 movie musical "The Wiz."

Ross, who was in Los Angeles yesterday preparing for a West Coast tour, said she was "taken aback. It is a huge, huge honor and I am excited to be in this class of people." Though she considers raising her five children a singular accomplishment, she recalled other special events in her life. There was her concert in Central Park to raise money for children's playgrounds. When blinding wind and a rainstorm forced her to suspend the concert, she told everyone to come back the next night, and 500,000 people showed up. And there were her appearances with tenors Placido Domingo and Jos? Carreras.

"As I travel I become an ambassador for the U.S. People ask me questions about life here. I can sit on an airplane and sit next to someone and find out I have been part of their lives for their entire lives. You just wouldn't know your song meant so much to them," Ross said.

Fleisher, 79, who was born in San Francisco, made his Carnegie Hall debut at 16. He went on to an international career as a soloist; his recordings of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms concertos have become classics. In 1965, after he lost the use of his right hand, Fleisher turned to teaching and conducting, and revitalized music created for the left hand. He was a co-founder and director of the Kennedy Center's Theater Chamber Players and associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. In his long association with the Peabody Conservatory and the Curtis Institute of Music, he has trained another generation of artists, such as pianists Andre Watts and Yefim Bronfman.

At 67 he regained the use of his right hand. Tim Page, the classical music critic for The Post, said, "Indeed, I would rather listen to Fleisher, even in his current, delicate shape, than to most other pianists now before the public."

"My heart stopped," Fleisher said yesterday, describing his reaction to the Kennedy Center Honors. "I have received honors from the French government and many doctorates, but to be honored by your own country and your peers is special."

Last year was one of the busiest of his long career, he said, with 60 engagements. "For a person of my age, with all the challenges of traveling, that is something." He said that when he is in the classroom, he reminisces about that Carnegie Hall debut. "I go back to the time where my students find themselves, and help them deal with what information to ingest to make good musical decisions."

Martin, 62, a native of Waco, Tex., was raised in Southern California. He has projected a manic, urbane, smart persona in television and movie roles since the late '60s. He is the "wild and crazy guy" from "Saturday Night Live." He is the put-upon parent from "Father of the Bride." He is also the refined collector of modern art by Picasso, Hopper, Hockney and Frankenthaler.

He won a best actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle for his role in 1984's "All of Me" and Grammys for two comedy albums. He played the banjo in the Earl Scruggs video "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which won a Grammy. His play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," about a fictional meeting between Picasso and Albert Einstein, won the New York Outer Critics Circle awards in 1996 for best off-Broadway play and best playwright.

Scorsese, 64, a native New Yorker, thought of being a priest and went to the seminary after high school. But he changed his mind and built a catalogue of great films, many of which are considered the best of their time. "Raging Bull" was selected as the greatest American film of the 1980s by American Film magazine and ranked second in another international poll of the top 10 films of all time (behind "Citizen Kane"). He produced films of searing intensity and violence, including "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "GoodFellas," "Cape Fear," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Gangs of New York" and "The Departed." The last one brought him his first Oscar. He is in post-production on a documentary of the Rolling Stones called "Shine a Light!"

In a statement, Scorsese said, "I'm very honored to be receiving this recognition from the Kennedy Center and proud to be joining the company of the very distinguished individuals who have received this honor in years past."

The awards will be presented the first week of December during a gala weekend in Washington. The two-hour show will be televised Dec. 26 on CBS.

Last year's winners were composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, conductor Zubin Mehta, country singer Dolly Parton, singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson and director Steven Spielberg.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company