By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With notes of rock, jazz and opera, Washington feted piano man Billy Joel, actress Shirley MacLaine and guitarist Carlos Santana on Sunday at the Kennedy Center Honors, the capital's annual celebration of the arts.
Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and opera singer Martina Arroyo rounded out the list of honorees at the country's prestigious awards ceremony for stars of the stage, screen and concert hall.
"The diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven't just proven themselves to be the best of the best," President Barack Obama said at a White House ceremony before the show.
"Despite all their success, all their fame, they've remained true to themselves - and inspired the rest of us to do the same."
The evening started with a tribute to Santana, a 10-time Grammy winner originally from Mexico.
Singer Harry Belafonte, himself a Kennedy Center honoree, joked that he was a victim of the Latino musician's greatness, saying he thought Santana got his spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"We should've built a bigger fence," he deadpanned, referring to the debate in Washington about immigration reform and border security with Mexico.
"The Latino thing has arrived. It has become the new black. And now Carlos is a citizen of the world."
The theme continued when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic member of the nation's highest court, introduced opera diva Arroyo. The daughter of a Puerto Rican father and an African-American mother, Arroyo grew up in an unlikely place for a future opera star: New York City's Harlem neighborhood.
"Martina faced an uphill battle," Sotomayor said. "She never gave up."
Musicians filled the Kennedy Center with opera and Santana's unique fusion sound in honor of the two performers.
Then, rapper Snoop Dogg electrified the stage with a rap tribute to Hancock, the keyboardist and band leader who hails from the Obamas' home state of Illinois.
"Hey, Herbie, you know we love you, baby," the rapper shouted. "Thank you for creating Hip Hop!"
THE ACTRESS AND THE PIANO MAN
MacLaine, who won an Oscar for her performance in the 1983 film "Terms of Endearment," was the sole actress highlighted during a night dominated by musicians.
"Ask me how my feet are, and ask me how my back is, and ask me where my martini is," she joked on Saturday at a State Department reception for the honorees.
MacLaine grew up in the Washington area and joins her brother, actor Warren Beatty, as a recipient of the award.
"It's more about my life and my past and my background and my home and my parents and dancing and work ethic," she told Reuters. "This is squaring the circle of living here."
MacLaine's other-worldly beliefs, described in her many books, also got some ribbing.
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the night came during the tribute to Joel, who's songs were described as a soundtrack for the lives of generations of Americans.
During a performance of Joel's song "Goodnight Saigon," a group of Vietnam veterans came on stage to sing along as Garth Brooks crooned the words "And we would all go down together."
The veterans saluted Joel at the end of the ballad. He saluted back.
"It's a little overwhelming," Joel told Reuters on Saturday night, referring to the award.
Asked to pick a favorite song or album, the composer - who has focused on his "first love" of writing instrumental music in recent years - demurred.
"I like 'em all. They're kinda like my kids. It's hard to pick a favorite," he said. "I like something about all of 'em. I remember the birth."
The final performance of the evening was Joel's famous hit "Piano Man," with the Kennedy Center audience singing along.
The show, which was recorded on Sunday, will be broadcast on CBS on December 29.
(Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; editing by Jackie Frank)