Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were awarded America’s greatest cultural honor, the Kennedy Award, by President Barack Obama at The White House in Washington on Sunday, December 2nd. Also honored were late night TV host David Letterman, Actor Dustin Hoffman, Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy and ballerina Natalia Makarova.
The Kennedy Award is the nation’s highest award for those who influenced American culture through the arts. The recipients will be saluted by fellow performers in a show that will air Dec. 26th on CBS.
Obama elicited laughs from his guests when he described the honorees as “some extraordinary people who have no business being on the same stage together.”
While introducing the honorees at a ceremony in the White House East Room, Obama joked, “I worked with the speechwriters – there is no smooth transition from ballet to Led Zeppelin.”
Noting that Buddy Guy made his first guitar strings using the wire from a window screen, he said, “That worked until his parents started wondering how all the mosquitoes were getting in.” Guy, a sharecropper’s son who made his first instrument with wire scrounged from his family’s home in rural Louisiana.
“He’s one of the most idiosyncratic and passionate blues greats, and there are not many left of that original generation,” said Bonnie Raitt, who as an 18-year-old blues singer was often the warm-up act for Guy. Raitt led a tribute that included singer Tracy Chapman and guitarist Jeff Beck. Guy, 76, was a pioneer in the Chicago blues style that pushed the sound of electrically amped guitar to the forefront of the music.
“You mastered the soul of gut bucket,” actor Morgan Freeman told the Kennedy Center audience. “You made a bridge from roots to rock ’n roll.”
Buddy Guy’s blues influence made its way across the Atlantic to Britain and had a profound effect on the men who would become Led Zeppelin: guitarist Jimmy Page, 68, vocalist Robert Plant, 64, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, 66, and drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980.
“Of course, these guys also redefined the rock and roll lifestyle,” the president said to audience laughter about Zeppelin. Obama added, “When Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham burst onto the musical scene in the late 1960s, the world never saw it coming,”
“There was this singer with a mane like a lion and a voice like a banshee, a guitar prodigy who left people’s jaws on the floor, a versatile bassist who was equally at home on the keyboards, a drummer who played like his life depended on it. It’s been said that a generation of young people survived teenage angst with a pair of headphones and a Zeppelin album…but even now, 32 years after John Bonham’s passing – and we all I think appreciate the fact – the Zeppelin legacy lives on.”
The president thanked the members of Led Zeppelin for behaving themselves at the White House given their history of “hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around.”
“It’s fitting that we’re doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick and Secret Service all around,” he said to laughter from the diverse group of artists.
He finished his speech, saying: “We honor Led Zeppelin for making us all feel young, and for showing us that some guys who are not completely youthful can still rock!”
Nancy and Ann Wilson of the rock band Heart, belted out a version of their idols “Stairway to Heaven” to close out the show.