Washington “I’m the president, but he’s The Boss.”
With those words, President Barack Obama greeted Bruce Springsteen Sunday night at a White House reception before the iconic rocker was lauded with Kennedy Center Honors along with Robert De Niro, comic genius Mel Brooks, jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck and opera singer Grace Bumbry.
A surprise list of stars performed as part of the nation’s highest honors for those who have defined American culture through the arts. It’s an awards show that opens with the national anthem and spans jazz, opera, movies and rock ’n roll — part of a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy.
Jon Stewart opened the tribute to Springsteen, recounting his theory on how The Boss came to be.
“I’m not a music critic, nor historian, nor archivist,” Stewart said. “But I am from New Jersey. And so I can tell you what I believe. ... I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby.”
As the story goes, Stewart said Dylan and Brown abandoned the child on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the child was raised by “a pack of feral vaudevillians. That child is Bruce Springsteen.”
Stewart had first lady Michelle Obama doubled over laughing. And The Boss, seated next to her, even cracked a smile.
Taking the stage
John Mellencamp sang “Born in the U.S.A.,” Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland did “Glory Days” with a country twist, Melissa Etheridge rocked the house with “Born To Run” to a standing ovation and Sting ended the musical tribute with “The Rising” with help from a choir.
About 300 guests, including Jack Black, Edward Norton, Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller, Martin Scorsese, Philip Seymour Hoffman celebrated the group with a reception in the East Room of the White House before the show.
“These performers are indeed the best,” Obama said. “They are also living reminders of a single truth — and I’m going to steal a line from Michelle here — the arts are not somehow apart from our national life, the arts are the heart of our national life.”
Springsteen, 60, described the award he received on Saturday night at a State Department dinner as different than other accolades.
“We worked really hard for our music to be part of American life and our fans’ lives,” he said. “So it’s an acknowledgment that you’ve kind of threaded your way into the culture in a certain way. It’s satisfying.”
The show will air nationwide Dec. 29 on CBS.
When Stiller came out to honor De Niro, he got distracted.
“Oh my God, it’s Bruce Springsteen!” he said. “Bruuuuce!”
“And then it’s Nobel Peace guy,” he said of the president.
The honors were heartfelt for the 66-year-old De Niro, too, though. Meryl Streep opened with a tribute to her friend who she said was exacting with details as an actor, director and producer.
“He did what I and my drama school friends dreamed of — to disappear and morph into a (character),” she said.
Later, Aretha Franklin recounted highlights from Bumbry’s career. As a 25-year-old singer, Bumbry broke racial barriers in 1961 when she was invited to perform in a production of Wagner’s “Tannhauser.” She would be the first black opera singer to appear at Germany’s Bayreuth, a shine to the composer’s work. Many conservative opera-goers were infuriated. But by the end of the performance, the audience applauded for 30 minutes and drew 42 curtain calls.
Bumbry, 72, said returning to meet Obama for the award was the highest honor she has received.
“It tops all of them,” she said. “First of all it’s my country, and secondly it’s the greatest award we have in this country for the arts.”
Brooks, 83, said it’s special to receive the honor during the Obama administration. He said he would whisper something in the president’s ear about the need for more federal funding for the arts.
“I think when all my awards go to e-Bay, it will be the last,” Brooks said of the Kennedy Center medallion before the show. “That’s how much I treasure it.”
Jack Black saluted Brooks with a rendition of “Men in Tights,” and Harry Connick Jr. sang “High Anxiety.”