Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, Berry Gordy, Kennedy Center Honors, News, Music News

Joni Mitchell, Berry Gordy, & Bette Midler Named Among 2021 Kennedy Center Honorees

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, Motown founder Berry Gordy, entertainer Bette Midler, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, and operatic bass-baritone Justino Díaz have been named the 2021 Kennedy Center honorees.

Modeled after European distinctions such as France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres or the United Kingdom's Order of the British Empire, the Kennedy Center Honors are presented to artists who have left a distinct impact on American culture.

While the award presentation is typically held in December, the 2020 ceremony aired on CBS in May 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year's ceremony will return to its original December date, as well as return to the inside of the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C. - rather than being spread out across the Kennedy Center's campus for social distancing purposes, like the 2020 show was.

The recipients will be honored at the 44th annual ceremony on December 5, and the event will air at a later date on CBS and be livestreamed and on demand on Paramount+. Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment will produce this year’s Kennedy Center Honors. It will be the seventh consecutive year White Cherry has produced the show.

“The Kennedy Center Honors celebrates luminaries whose art and creativity have enriched us beyond measure,” Kennedy Center chairman David M. Rubenstein said in a statement. He went on to explain why each honoree deserves recognition:

"With his distinguished, deeply resonant voice and storied operatic career, Justino Díaz stood on the stages of the world's great opera houses and today stands as one of the greatest bass-baritones of our time," Rubenstein said.

Díaz actually performed at the Kennedy Center's grand opening 50 years ago as the male lead in Alberto Ginastera's opera Beatrix Cenci. Besides his Kennedy Center Honors, Díaz has also receieved a Grammy nomination for Best Opera Recording for Verdi: Otello in 1986.

"Visionary music producer and songwriter Berry Gordy brought the quintessential soulfulness of Detroit into every home in America," Rubenstein continued, "elevating the Motown sound to become a national treasure."

Like Díaz, Gordy has also been nominated for a Grammy. He was belatedly honored for best R&B song for “I’ll Be There” when Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz covered the Jackson 5 song in 1992. He's also been honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Recording Academy.

Two of the honorees were actually born in Canada. The first is Lorne Michaels, who moved from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1968. His late night sketch show has launched several comedy careers, catchphrases, and even generated several great musical performances. In David Rubenstein's words, SNL "is both mirror and muse for life in America."

Besides his Kennedy Center Honors, Michaels was voted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1999, and has won 20 Emmy Awards. SNL itself has won a total of 87 Emmys and is nominated for 21 more this year.

The second Canadian honoree is Joni Mitchell, who is described by Rubenstein as being "one of the most influential singer-songwriters and cultural figures in 20th-century popular music." She responded to the announcement by saying, "It's a long way from Saskatoon."

Like Gordy, Mitchell has been honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Recording Academy. Recently, she released her Blue 50 EP, and her 1971 album Blue unexpectedly jumped to the No. 1 spot on iTunes' Top Albums chart - outperforming even H.E.R.'s Back of My Mind and Olivia Rodrigo’s debut record Sour.

"An artistic tour de force and America’s Divine Miss M, Bette Midler has enjoyed an unrivaled and prolific career, entertaining millions with her wondrous voice and trademark comedic wit," Rubenstein said on the Hawaiian-bred performer.

Bette Midler is the closest to EGOT status out of all the honorees. She has won three Grammy Awards, three Emmys, and a Tony for Hello, Dolly! (2017), which she received 43 years after receiving a special Tony “for adding lustre to the Broadway season.” She has also been nominated for two Best Actress Oscars: one for for The Rose (1979) and the other for For the Boys (1991).

“This year’s Honorees represent the unifying power of the Arts and surely remind us of that which binds us together as human beings. These artists are equal parts genius, inspiration, and entertainment,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter.

Read the honorees' full statements below.

“I’m deeply grateful to be receiving this Honor. It is especially thrilling for me because 50 years ago I sang as the male lead in Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci on the Opera House stage at the Kennedy Center’s grand opening — the night after Bernstein’s Mass. I was the first operatic voice to christen the walls of this wonderful institution all those years ago and I am beyond honored to return to this stage to have such a distinction bestowed on me. I am humbled as I assume my place amongst so many wonderful peers and talented artists.” - Justino Díaz

“The Arts not only give voice to the voiceless, but connect us, transform us, and soothe our souls. The Kennedy Center Honors epitomizes the recognition and value of both the Arts, and the Artist. I am thrilled to become a part of this prestigious American legacy. Growing up in Detroit, I was not only Black but the “black sheep” of my family. I was a failure at everything I did until I was 29 years old, while my younger brother Robert was not only a family favorite, but strangely, a favorite of mine as well. He inspired me with his loyalty, love, and graciousness. Throughout the years I’ve been blessed with many wonderful memories, but this — the Kennedy Center Honors — is one that will be forever in my heart. Thank you.” – Berry Gordy

“The Kennedy Center’s commitment to the performing arts has always been an important force in American culture. Being acknowledged here and included in this company is an honor in the truest sense. I am deeply grateful.” – Lorne Michaels

“I’m grateful to the Kennedy Center for bestowing this honor on my work and I look forward to being a part of this prestigious celebration of the arts. I wish my mother and father were alive to see this. It’s a long way from Saskatoon.” – Joni Mitchell

“I am profoundly touched by this honor, in fact, I am stunned and grateful beyond words. For many years I have watched this broadcast celebrating the best talent in the performing arts that America has to offer, and I truly never imagined that I would find myself among these swans. Thank you to the Kennedy Center for recognizing me, and my heartfelt thanks to everyone who put me here.” – Bette Midler

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Article Image: Joni Mitchell singing and playing guitar during a performance in 1983, Berry Gordy at the "Hitsville: Making of Motown" Premiere in 2019, Bette Midler at the HELP HAITI HOME Gala in 2014. (Capanelle [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons, Jean_Nelson and s_bukley via DepositPhotos.)

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About Kathryn Milewski

  • New Jersey