Gladys Knight performed at the 2021 Kennedy Center Honors, in tribute to one of the commendations, Garth Brooks, with a rendition of his song “We Shall Be Free”. But when she returns to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in December, she’ll take on a different role: She’ll sit on the balcony wearing a medal designating her as one of this year’s five places of honor.
“You all amaze me,” said Knight, the esteemed R&B, pop and soul artist of her recognition by the Kennedy Center.
She will be celebrated at a gala on December 4 at the 45th annual Kennedy Center Honors, along with actor and filmmaker George Clooney; contemporary Christian singer-songwriter Amy Grant; the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Tania León and the band U2.
Deborah F. Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, said making the choices was challenging, as always. “There are so many deserving individuals and ensembles, and there are only five places a year,” she said in an interview. “So it’s very, very, very hard to do, and yet a great privilege.”
Clooney, who has starred in films as varied as “Out of Sight,” “Michael Clayton,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in “Syriana,” in a statement saying the honor was a “really exciting surprise.”
“Growing up in a small town in Kentucky, I never imagined that one day I would be the one sitting on the balcony of the Kennedy Center Honors,” he said.
The Kennedy Center said the event, later broadcast by CBS, will be produced by Done+Dusted this year.
“I’ve never been touched by anything that made me feel so amazed,” Grant said.
She said she hoped to reach a diverse audience of listeners. “One of the reasons I loved singing about faith so much was because I wanted to create a welcome table where everyone felt involved,” she said. (And who would she like to see in the Honors sing one of her songs? Katy Perry, who sings her 1992 hit “Breath of Heaven,” she said.)
U2, the Irish rock band that featured Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., recalled in a statement that first came to America in 1980 and played their first show this side of the Atlantic at the Ritz in New York. “But even in the wilder minds, we never imagined that 40 years later we would be invited to receive one of the country’s greatest awards,” they said.
León, a Cuban-born composer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for her work “Stride,” said she was shocked to learn that she was being honoured.
“To tell you the truth, I couldn’t get out of my chair,” León said. “I hung up, I was like, ‘this isn’t happening. No, no, no, this isn’t happening.’ It’s a kind of reaction that you don’t believe in what you hear.”
Composer, conductor and educator, León has had her work performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and numerous other ensembles. She expressed gratitude to her grandparents in Cuba who, despite struggling to make ends meet, enrolled her at a conservatory in Havana at the age of four and then bought her a used piano to practice on. She said she called herself the “family project.”
Knight, who also began her musical career at the age of four performing gospel, called the honor breathtaking. The seven-time Grammy-winning recording artist who has released hits spanning several generations, from “Midnight Train to Georgia” to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” said she sings in hopes of touching the mind and touching the heart, or vehicle whether R&B, pop or gospel.
“That’s what I love about music, you don’t have to do one thing,” Knight said, “you can tell the world so many things about you as a person.”