Kennedy Center Honors: Led Zeppelin and David Letterman get their due

2012-kennedy-center-honorees-gi.jpgThey're legendary talents from different disciplines. and they're all ending the year with the same, very important date.

Musicians, a singular ballerina, an iconic actor, and an after-hours television fixture are in the presidential box for the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. Taped at the start of the month in Washington, D.C., the ever-classy ceremony will have its yearly CBS telecast Wednesday, Dec. 26.

As she has since 2003, Caroline Kennedy presides over the event. Performers ranging from Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin to Bonnie Raitt, Kid Rock, Foo Fighters and Heart turn out to salute the honorees.

And just why are they the honorees this year? Here's our take on the reasons each is being presented with the medal generally considered the highest entertainment award America has to give.

Led Zeppelin: Any music fan old enough to remember will tell you Led Zeppelin was the pre-eminent hard rock band of the 1970s. Concerts routinely sold out in hours, LPs went gold in days, and one album, 1975's "Physical Graffiti," went platinum on pre-orders alone.

Like any great band, Zeppelin had its own distinctive sound, a fusion of rock and blues. And of course, there were Robert Plant's howling vocals and Jimmy Page's searing guitar licks. But Zeppelin also had a virtuoso drummer in John Bonham, whose syncopated style gave the band its unmistakable backbone.

When he died of alcohol-related asphyxiation at age 32 in 1980, Zeppelin faced a crossroads. Two years earlier, the Who tried to make a go of it after their one-of-a-kind drummer, Keith Moon, died of an overdose. The result was a pale shadow of a once-great band. Zeppelin's surviving members, perhaps fearing a similar fate, elected not to carry on.

These days, there are box sets and the occasional Page/Plant appearance to remind of Zeppelin's greatness. But otherwise, to coin an old cliche, they don't make music like that anymore. -- George Dickie


Dustin Hoffman: It could have been Robert Redford -- later Hoffman's fellow star in "All the President's Men" -- as Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate." That had been a very real casting thought, but instead, New York stage actor Hoffman was propelled to a screen stardom that has yielded other all-time-classic performances and movies -- "Midnight Cowboy," "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Tootsie" and "Rain Man," to name a mere handful.

And in the theater, Hoffman's Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" is widely regarded as one of the best interpretations of the character ever. Famously challenging and massively committed as a collaborator, the two-time Oscar winner has started a new chapter by turning movie director for the first time with the current drama "Quartet." -- Jay Bobbin

david-letterman-kennedy-center-honors-2012-gi.jpg David Letterman: In his typically self-effacing way, the late-night television staple's initial reaction was that the selection committee's choice of him "confirms my belief that there has been a mix-up" ... but there's little doubt how significant it must be to "Dave" to be named to a Kennedy Center Honor as was his late friend and professed idol, Johnny Carson.

First on NBC and since on CBS, Letterman long has been a caustically comedic barometer of what's happening in the world, but he's also intuitive enough to turn more serious when warranted (his occasional personal troubles, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, etc.). There's a certain delicious anticipation in how uncomfortable he's likely to look while sitting wordlessly, being feted by others. -- Jay Bobbin

Natalia Makarova: Against a black stage, Makarova enters in white to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Anyone who enjoys ballet has seen this, rigorous for the prima ballerina dancing both roles. But Makarova's was different. It was, as expected of anyone who could perform this, technically perfect. Yet hers was more. A petite dancer, she commanded the world's largest stages. Thousands of hours went into each arabesque, though she made it look effortless.

Makarova, who had a cool demeanor, danced with the best of her generation -- Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov - and shined because of brilliant technique and pure artistry. Her arms curving elegantly, her steps precise, her very being made you believe she was a swan, only more graceful than those that honk. Years later, Natalie Portman would play a delusional ballerina who imagined she was sprouting feathers. But Makarova had us believing she could take flight. -- Jacqueline Cutler

Buddy Guy: "Clapton is God," according to a notorious bit of graffiti that went viral before anyone knew what that term meant. When it comes to blues guitar, however, Eric Clapton's own "god" is Buddy Guy, the Louisiana native who moved to Chicago in the 1950s and turned that city's blues sound into his own unique style ... so unique, in fact, that the industry didn't know what to do with it.

Fans did, however, and so did a generation of young musicians - including Clapton - who were incorporating the blues into their rock 'n' roll sound. His Kennedy Center commendation is only the latest in a string of well-deserved honors; he's an inductee in the Rock and Roll and Louisiana Music Halls of Fame, has won 23 W.C. Handy Awards (the most of any artist) and six Grammys, and has received the National Medal of Arts and Billboard magazine's Century Award. -- Beverly L. Seinberg
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