Oprah Winfrey among five recipients of 2010 Kennedy Center Honors

Receiving this year's Kennedy Center Honors are television host Oprah Winfrey, musicians Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and lyricist Jerry Herman.
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Well, hello, Oprah! The Kennedy Center announced Tuesday that Oprah Winfrey, the doyenne of daytime television, will be among the five artists receiving this year's Kennedy Center Honors.

The others are musician-songwriters Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard, dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman of "Hello, Dolly!" fame.

The selection of Winfrey may be startling, but it's not without precedent. The choice harks back to 1993 when late-night television host Johnny Carson was selected, breaking the long line of honorees who were strictly traditional performing artists. Winfrey, taking a break from taping for her 25th season and reviewing the nearly 5,000 hours of footage, let out with a buoyant "Wow-zee!"

She explained: "This feels like an official American citizenship in a very exclusive club of artists and contributors to the nation in a very special way. It feels like an elevated kind of award and there aren't many in this category. They look at your work, your life work, who you are as a human being and the spirit of who you are as a human being. Not many honors look at that depth."

David M. Rubenstein, the center's chairman, talked about the "cultural vibrancy" of all five honorees.

"For more than 25 years, Oprah Winfrey has established one of the most innovative careers in the entertainment world, with distinctive accomplishments in television and film," he said.

"The honesty of Merle Haggard's music and poetic lyrics has helped to shape the world of country music for nearly five decades. Jerry Herman's musicals rank him in the pantheon of Broadway's Golden Age," said Rubenstein, who will be hosting his first gala as chairman. "The inventive style and imaginative artistry of Bill T. Jones has had an invaluable impact on the varied landscapes of dance and theater. Sir Paul McCartney is one of the most influential and successful songwriters and musicians of all time."

Actually, this is the second time McCartney has been invited to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. In 2002, he accepted but then abruptly withdrew, citing a family obligation. "We first asked if he had any relatives getting married the first week of December," joked George Stevens Jr., the longtime producer of the event. "He is very pleased and we are pleased to have him in the group." For his own part, McCartney sent along a message: "President Kennedy was such an icon for us in the Sixties and his presidency was so inspiring for so many people that it is a great pleasure for this kid from Liverpool to receive this honour."

McCartney, who received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in June and performed at the White House, has long led the list of most beloved and influential musicians. Now 68, he transformed the music scene with the Beatles and, after their breakup in 1970, enjoyed success with his own band, Wings, and continues to be an exhilarating performer on tour, drawing crowds of all generations. Music authorities rank his 1965 composition "Yesterday" as one of the best songs ever and declare that it has been played more than 6 million times on American radio.

For lifetime contributions

The Honors, marking their 33rd year, are a coveted tribute to artists who have made lifetime contributions to dance, opera, film, television, music and theater.

In a career that dates from the early 1960s, Haggard has entertained with more than 600 songs that touch all the themes of country, gospel and blues. When asked about his 38 straight No. 1 songs, Haggard laughs deeply. "Well, actually it's 41 straight Top 10 hits," he said. Few would argue with his influence and representation of working people and their dreams and mistakes. Haggard, 73, starting out with his fiddle and guitar, was encouraged to write about his own hard life, unhappy childhood, imprisonment and eventually love and a good family.

"Hungry Eyes," the 1969 song about an impoverished family, was followed by "Okie From Muskogee" and "Today I Started Loving You Again." "If We Make It Through December" and "The Bottle Let Me Down" are pure country. The audiences he finds on tour today, he said, request "Mama Tried," "Misery and Gin," "The Fugitive" and "Okie." Not minding continuing to sing the standards, Haggard said, "All those songs are right inside of me."

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