WASHINGTON — A heartfelt Patti LaBelle praised her lifelong friend Gladys Knight. Matt Damon playfully teased his friend George Clooney — a lot — while Sheryl Crow gave thanks and a heartfelt rendition of “Baby Baby” to her fellow singer Amy Grant during Sunday’s Kennedy Center Honors.
Knight, Clooney and Grant were all honored at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; groundbreaking composer and conductor Tania León and the rock group U2 were also part of this year’s class. Every year the Kennedy Center honors a select group of people for their artistic influences on American culture. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their respective spouses were in attendance.
On the red carpet ahead of the Kennedy Center show, Clooney, with his wife, Amal, beside him, joked that after seeing friends like Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts in attendance he was worried his tribute would be more of a “roast.” And it was a bit of a roast for Clooney, though his friends and family showed obvious respect.
Longtime friend Julia Roberts set the tone by coming out onstage with a dress emblazoned with photos of Clooney all over it. After an an introduction that alternated between funny and heartfelt she turned to a set designed to look like a smoky bar — the type Clooney might enjoy. The actor’s father regaled the crowd with stories of a young George, including the time the 7-year-old — heartbroken over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 — gave his father all his toy guns.
Damon took the funny road, joking about how Clooney once stole then-President Bill Clinton’s stationery and wrote notes to fellow actors on it. Cheadle highlighted Clooney’s philanthropic work.
LaBelle called Knight her “everything,” saying they had been friends for six decades and seen each other through laughter and tears. “We do everything together,” LaBelle said. “I am honored to honor you tonight.”
Actor and hip-hop star LL Cool J said that whenever Knight sings she connects with people. “I once heard Gladys sing the ABCs and I thought I was in church,” he said.
Country music superstar Garth Brooks, citing Knight’s “roots in country music,” sang her classic “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
Crow sang one of Grant’s most famous songs, “Baby Baby,” while veteran news anchor Katie Couric talked about how young Grant was when she was discovered.
The honorees came to the theater from a White House reception where Biden praised them before a star-studded East Room crowd as an “exceptional group of artists.”
“Thank you for showing us the power of the arts and ‘We the People,’” Biden said.
He highlighted Clooney’s on-camera work and off-screen charity endeavors, from helping 9/11 victims’ families to supporting a gun control campaign led by the survivors of the Parkland school shooting.
“He is unrelenting and undaunted,” Biden said. “That is character in real life. And that is George Clooney.”
Biden hailed Grant’s voice as “a true gift from God that she shares with everyone,” thanked León for “breathing new sounds into the soul of the nation,” and said he has all of Knight’s songs on his iPhone.
“We’re going to get on that midnight train,” Biden said of Knight. “Because I speak for all Americans when I say we we’d rather live in your world than be without you in ours.”
Biden, noting his love of Irish poets, called U2 “four sons of Ireland, poets in their own right” whose music “has changed the world.”
“We would do well to remember today at a moment when there’s too much hate, too much anger, too much division here in America, and quite frankly, around the world,” Biden said. “We have to remember today, as their song goes: ‘We are one but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.’”
U2 has sold 170 million albums and been honored with 22 Grammys. The band’s epic singles include “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Lead singer Bono has also become known for his philanthropic work to eradicate poverty and to raise awareness about AIDS.
Clooney became a household name on the television show “ER” before starring in movies such as “Three Kings,” “Ocean’s Eleven” (and “Twelve” and “Thirteen”), “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and this year’s “Ticket to Paradise.”
Knight and family members started a band that would later be known as Gladys Knight & The Pips and produced their first album in 1960 when Knight was just 16. Since then she’s recorded dozens of albums with such classic hits as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
Grant is well known for crossover pop hits like “Every Heartbeat” and “That’s What Love is For.” She’s sold more than 30 million albums, including her 1991 record “Heart in Motion,” which introduced her to a larger pop audience.
León said during an interview when the honorees were announced that she wasn’t expecting “anything spectacular” when the Kennedy Center initially reached out to her.
After all, she’s worked with the Kennedy Center numerous times over the years going back to 1980, when she was commissioned to compose music for a play.
But the 79-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner said she was stunned to learn that this time the ceremony was going to be for her.
León left Cuba as a refugee in 1967 and eventually settled in New York City. She’s a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series.
AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller contributed to this report.