I’ve been watching the Kennedy Center Honors every year for decades, possibly since they began offering them in 1978. And while, in the early days, at least one performer per year was a bit obscure to me, as time passed, the awardees became much more familiar, in general. And there is usually at least one very moving segment such as Libera singing Love and Mercy to Brian Wilson in 2007, or Bettye LaVette singing Love Reign O’er Me to Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry of the Who in 2008. The celebration of “the Careers of Five Extraordinary Artists” took place on Sunday, December 5, 2010. The gala will be broadcast on CBS-TV on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 9:00-11:00 p.m., ET/PT.

For a long time, I knew Merle Haggard only for his song Okie from Muskogee, about which I had, at best, mixed feelings. But I subsequently discovered a wealth of tunes of Americana that transcended the narrow political box I had placed him in.

Jerry Herman wrote a wealth of Broadway musicals, but he is probably best known for Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles. Both of these have made multiple visits onto the Great White Way, and La Cage is in revival presently. Both of these productions were also turned into movies.

Though born in Florida, Bill T. Jones was raised in the Southern Tier of upstate New York, probably an hour from where I grew up, “the tenth of 12 children of migrant farm workers, ‘poorer than poor, one of two black families in a town of 10,000.'” He studied at SUNY Binghamton, the college in my hometown, “a theater major on an athletic scholarship,” where he discovered ballet and modern dance, and love “with Arnie Zane, a Jew from the Bronx studying art and photography.” By 1982, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company “was well on its way to becoming a living treasure of American culture,” but Arnie died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1988. Jones subsequently choreographed a wide range of well-received pieces, eventually winning two Tony awards, for Spring Awakening and Fela! I know him best for a dance he choreographed for a production based on the life of Abraham Lincoln, which my wife saw last summer at SPAC.

Oprah Winfrey. What’s to say? She’s a “producer, television host, actress, major player on Broadway and in Hollywood, author and self-made billionaire philanthropist” who overcame a very tough childhood. I must admit that I have seldom watched her program, particularly in recent years, but one episode I did see definitely stood out: the nine black kids who integrated the high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, and some of the white kids who taunted them, 50 years later. It was a healing moment that made for great television.

Finally, Paul McCartney. He’s Sir Beatle Paul, FCOL. When Paul left the Beatles in 1970, he worked really hard to avoid even playing Beatles songs. Eventually, he started putting a few in, but he seemed to want to make sure that his new stuff wasn’t overshadowed. I recall that Elvis Costello had to push him into using the Beatlesque bass line of My Brave Face. Now that he’s 64-plus, he seems comfortable with his place in history, playing the last concert at Shea Stadium in 2008, and the first concert in the new Citi Field in 2009, echoing the Beatles at Shea in 1965. He’s become the legacy Beatle, as opposed to Ringo’s All-Starr gigs, which, no disrespect, always felt like the oldies-tour Beatles. Good Evening New York City, from that 2009 gig, may be the best live album he’s ever done, and I recommend it, especially with the DVD. In particular, Here Today, his tribute to John Lennon from the early 1980s, always felt a little cloying, but here, with Paul describing John’s love for NYC, quite touching.

And Macca seems to have developed quite the sense of humor about himself, as evidenced by his recent appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon – Scrambled Eggs!- and Saturday Night Live.

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