Actor Al Pacino, musician James Taylor, gospel and blues singer Mavis Staples, Argentine pianist Martha Argerich and rockers the Eagles will receive the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors, the arts center announced Thursday.
“Oh, my God, if I could have turned a flip I would have done it,” said Staples, 76, of her reaction to the invitation. “I’ve been to several [Honors ceremonies], but I never expected to be chosen. It’s the highest honor that Mavis has had to this point.”
Surprise guests and A-list performers will celebrate the honorees’ lifetime achievements at a live performance Dec. 4. A major fundraiser for the national arts center and living memorial to former president John F. Kennedy, the 39th annual Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast Dec. 27 on CBS.
If the roster feels like a retread, it’s partly because the Eagles were selected last year (and were celebrated by country singer Miranda Lambert, who performed their signature ballad “Desperado.”) The band deferred when Glenn Frey’s ailments forced him into the hospital. He died in January at the age of 67 after undergoing gastrointestinal tract surgery.
The Kennedy Center Honors started in 1978 to celebrate artists who have made lasting contributions to the country. The primary criterion for their selection is artistic excellence. Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter said each artist has shaped the American artistic landscape.
“They are the very best of the artists of their genre,” Rutter said. “Martha gives herself completely to the power of the music. She enters the music itself. Al Pacino is one of those iconic artists you almost forget about because he so deeply embodies his characters. Mavis (Staples) is a pistol. She has worked with so many artists across genres.”
Taylor and the Eagles — Frey, Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh — are voices of their generations, she added.
In recent years, the roster has included popular musicians and actors, including Tom Hanks, George Lucas, Led Zeppelin and Sting. Classical musicians usually alternate with dancers, but Argerich’s appearance this year follows conductor Seiji Ozawa. Ballerina and George Balanchine muse Patricia McBride was part of the 2014 class.
“We haven’t had an instrumentalist in a really, really long time,” Rutter said about Argerich’s selection. “It’s sort of like a dinner party, the balance. Last year we had three women and two men, this year two women. It goes back and forth year to year.”
The legendary Argerich was born in Buenos Aires and began studying piano at the age of 5. She made her first commercial recording in 1960. Winner of three Grammy Awards, Argerich, who is 75, is described as brilliant and mercurial and considered one of the greatest pianists of her time. She has organized international competitions and music festivals and mentored young musicians from around the world.
As an Argentine, she brings cultural diversity to the roster, which had been repeatedly criticized for the absence of Hispanic artists.
Rutter said several generations grew up listening to the distinct sound of the Eagles. “They spoke to a lifestyle and how people made music, the creative approach they have,” she said.
Founded in 1971 by the late Frey and Don Henley, 68, the Eagles used signature harmonies and country-inflected melodies to create their Southern California vibe. Walsh, 68, joined the band in 1975, and Schmit, 68, came on two years later. Known for singles including “Hotel California,” “Take It Easy” and “Lyin’ Eyes,” the band has had five No. 1 singles and six No. 1 albums and won six Grammy Awards. The group has sold more than 150 million records and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
The Eagles were not available to comment on the decision to accept their Kennedy Center Honor this year, according to the band’s spokesman. But Jack Tempchin, who wrote “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and co-wrote “Already Gone” and other Eagles hits with Frey, said he appreciated the chance to once again celebrate the singer’s life.
“We’re all missing Glenn and this great space he left in our lives,” said Tempchin, who will release an album early next year featuring new recordings of songs he wrote with Frey. “He had a lot of further plans and things that he was doing that aren’t going to happen. That kind of dominates the mood. It’s kind of celebrating what he achieved in his life. He was the fire that kept it burning.”
Frey’s widow, Cynthia Millican Frey, will be seated with the band during the ceremony, the arts center said.
Recognized globally for his portrayal of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” Pacino, 76, has enjoyed success on the stage and on film. A native New Yorker, Pacino earned his first Tony Award in 1969, two years before he began making movies. He has appeared in 45 films, including “Scarface,” “Serpico,” “Donnie Brasco” and “Scent of a Woman” In 1996, he directed and starred in the documentary “Looking for Richard,” about Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” He was honored with the National Medal of Arts in 2011, and the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement in Motion Pictures in 2001.
Staples has been singing and performing for 66 years, first as a member of the Staple Singers (led by her father, “Pops”) and as a soloist who has collaborated and toured with Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Zac Brown, Bonnie Raitt and many others. She performed for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and has sung for President and Michelle Obama at the White House.
At the 2012 Honors, she and James Taylor sang “Let It Be” for Paul McCartney, who teared up as he watched.
“That was the biggest thing I’d ever done in my life, singing for one of the Beatles,” she said, speaking from her tour bus because she is on the road with Dylan.
Staples said she wished her father was still alive to enjoy the fact that “a little ole gospel singer” is being honored. “He’d say, ‘Mavis girl, you’ve come a long way and you’re still at it.’ ”
With his distinctive honeyed baritone, Taylor, 68, has been playing and recording music for 50 years, signing with Apple Records (of Beatles fame) in 1968 and selling some 100 million records since. Known for the singles “Sweet Baby James” and “Fire and Rain” and as the onetime husband of Carly Simon, Taylor has been honored with multiple Grammy Awards, a National Medal of Arts and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He sang at Obama’s second inauguration, and last year he released “Before This World,” his first new studio album in 13 years.
The Kennedy Center receives nominations from citizens, board members, past honorees and others. A special advisory committee culls the list, and the executive committee of the arts center’s board of trustees makes the final selection. The night before the performance, Secretary of State John F. Kerry will present the rainbow-ribboned medallions at a State Department dinner. A White House reception precedes the main event, when, according to tradition, the honorees sit with the president and first lady.
Geoff Edgers contributed to this report.