Motown Founder Berry Gordy, Bette Midler and Joni Mitchell Receive Kennedy Center Honors

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Music was in the air, the sitting President was back in the balcony and the Kennedy Center Honors were once again a lavish in-person affair at the opera house complete with proof of vaccinations, negative PCRs and masks for all in attendance Sunday night. Motown visionary Berry Gordy, Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell, renowned bass/baritone singer Justino Diaz and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels were celebrated at the 44th incarnation of the event honoring lifetime artistic achievement.

To mark the celebrations, Stevie Wonder gave a mini concert of Motown hits including “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition” and a custom “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Brandi Carlile delivered a mesmerizing version of “River” plucked from her recent Carnegie Hall performance. Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson, Ellie Goulding, Billy Porter and Brittany Howard were all in the house.

Gordy, 92, borrowed $800 from his family to start what would become the music and entertainment powerhouse that not only brought the world Diana Ross & the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and so many others but also became a catalyst to bridge racial divides.

He was all humility when speaking in his newly donned rainbow lanyard as he made his way into the theater. “Each of the artists was just so special. I don’t know what to say other than I’m flowing with love for these people who backed me up and many of whom fought, cried, lived and died to make Motown what it is. It’s not only me; it’s all those people. And some unsung people you don’t hear about,” he said.

Gordy and Robinson have an unmatched “bromance”—Robinson officially, delightfully used the word to describe their relationship speaking with Billboard Sunday night—that often finds its way onto stages where they have the occasion to sing each other’s praises. This year’s Honors was no exception. Robinson treated the audience to the story behind their creation of his first No. 1 hit “Shop Around,” and sang a song he wrote a year ago to celebrate their friendship, only the second time he’s publicly performed it.

Andra Day, the cast of the Broadway’s’ Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, and Wonder pumped considerable soul into the room of politicos and arts patrons who reconvened to find a show that grows more polished and Hollywood in nature every year.

David Letterman opened the evening—which last year was imagined differently due to COVID-19 and which Donald Trump never attended during his tenure in the White House, by noting, “Tonight, it is quite nice to see the Presidential box once again being occupied.” Then, after the audience gave a prolonged standing ovation for President Joe Biden, Letterman looked up and added, “The same with the Oval Office.”

Mitchell, 78, whose songbook sits alongside the likes of Bob Dylan in terms of its influence, recently marked the 50th anniversary of her iconic album Blue (the catalyst for the latter artist’s song “Tangled Up In Blue”). The 78-year-old is having a triumphant season, after surviving a brain aneurysm in 2015 and slipping out of the public eye for several years. Not only is she a Kennedy Center honoree but she’ll be feted as the MusiCares Person of the Year in January.

“It’s so great this is all happening now; she’s written so much beauty into the world,” Judy Collins, who scored her first hit with “Both Sides Now,” told Billboard on the red carpet. ”People from all genres of music have taken a crack at a Joni Mitchell song. I was lucky, I started it.”

Collins recalled getting a call at 3am from a mutual friend in the band Blood Sweat & Tears who was with Mitchell after a club gig. “He put her on the phone, she sang me ‘Both Sides Now,’ and then we got together and started swapping life stories and songs. The album that song was on was called Wildflowers and my first three songs I wrote were on that album too,” Collins said of the 1967 release. “So it was a real kind of gift from some place else to have that all happen together.”

Aside from Carlile, whose rendition of “River” was a sublime slice of her recent Carnegie Hall performance of Blue in its entirety, Mitchell heard from Howard, who performed “Both Sides Now”; Goulding, who delivered a delightful “Big Yellow Taxi”; and Norah Jones, who played piano and sang a medley of Mitchell tunes. Stories were shared by fellow Canadian Dan Levy, who remembered his mother buying her copy of Blue the day it was released, and filmmaker Cameron Crowe.

Midler, 76, who’s sold more than 30 million records and earned four Grammys, three Emmys, two Tonys and two Oscar nominations, is the definition of a multi-hyphenate entertainer.

Her portion of the night featured a “Love Is On the Way”-centered medley by Porter, whose talent Midler put in the spotlight when she included the song in her 1996 film The First Wives Club; music from Hello Dolly! cast members including Beanie Feldstein; and tributes from Goldie Hawn, Scarlett Johansson and Melissa Manchester, who recalled when Barry Manilow introduced her to Midler when they were performing at neighboring New York nightclubs.

Tony-winning actress Kelli O’Hara stirred the audience’s emotions with her performance of Wind Beneath My Wings.” The ballad left many a moviegoer who saw the 1998 movie Beaches, in which Midler starred with Barbara Hershey, sobbing. Hershey told Billboard pre-show it had the same effect behind the scenes.

“Before filming, Bette played it for me and I was so blown away by it,” she said. “And then when we shot my death scene, and there were no words in that scene, so they played that song out because there was no dialog. And when I opened my eyes at the end of shooting, the whole crew was crying. When I saw the crew’s reaction to hearing the song I thought ‘Wow, we’re keeping that one.’ ”

For her part, true to comedic form, Midler, who just celebrated her 78th birthday, had this to say on the red carpet about the previous night’s medallion ceremony and White House visit. “It was very clean, great staff, the food was excellent, the wine was a little sweet.”

The selection of Diaz this year was well orchestrated, as the Kennedy Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the opera and screen dynamo was on stage in the opera house as the male lead in Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci for the at the Center’s grand opening.

Born in Puerto Rico, Diaz, 81, caught the musical performance bug in grade school and rose to become one of the most acclaimed bass-baritones in opera. Aside from helping to inaugurate the Kennedy Center, he performed at the debut of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in 1966, one of 400 performances at the Metropolitan. His tribute was opera-filled splendor, including a performance from Carmen.

The stage turned into a satellite campus of NBC’s studio 8H for the tribute to Michaels, 77, creator of television’s longest-running variety show and the most Emmy-nominated show in history as a wish list of current and past SNL talent came to pay homage. Among them, Steve Martin, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, Kenan Thompson and Jimmy Fallon, who praised Michaels’ unique ability to identify and woo top musical guests.

“Name the hottest acts and you’d find them on Saturday Night Live,” Fallon said during his bit. “Through the years some of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll and pop—and artists who were just about to set the charts on fire—all accepted his invitation to perform. If you are music of the moment, you are on Saturday Night Live.” Simon, the show’s musical guest in its second-ever episode in 1975, delivered an acoustic rendition of “America” to mark the occasion.

SNL alum Kevin Nealon told Billboard before the show he remembers some musical guests during his tenure surprising the cast and crew with their generosity. “Eric Clapton and Paul Simon and some others actually stayed after the show and did a little concert for the studio,” he said.

Michaels’ segment also included three Honors-themed incarnations of SNL institution Weekend Update, delivered in turn by Nealon; Amy Pohler and Seth Meyers; and current desk duo Michael Che and Colin Jost.

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