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President Biden and the first lady attend the Kennedy Center Honors

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was quite a scene at the Kennedy Center this weekend in Washington. A list of big-name artists were celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors - Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, Berry Gordy, Lorne Michaels, an opera singer, Justino Diaz. And unlike the past few years, the presidential box seats were filled. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden were there to pay tribute as well. The event will be broadcast on CBS later this month. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Joni Mitchell was honored for her timeless, emotional songs like one that Herbie Hancock calls poetically expansive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTH SIDES NOW")

JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air.

BLAIR: When Mitchell was 9 years old, she contracted polio. At a ceremony at the Library of Congress, Hancock said when she started playing ukulele and guitar, the disease had weakened her left hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERBIE HANCOCK: So she devised her own tunings so she could access the emotionally complex chords that she was hearing in her mind.

BLAIR: In 2015, Joni Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm that nearly killed her. She shared a few words about her struggles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCHELL: This last one was a real whopper, you know? But, you know, I'm hobbling along, but I'm doing all right (laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

BLAIR: The Kennedy Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Honoree Justino Diaz was in the very first performance at the center's opera house. The Puerto Rican native has performed on the world's most famous stages. He's best known for singing villains like Iago in Verdi's "Otello."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTINO DIAZ: (As Iago, singing in Italian).

BLAIR: The Kennedy Center Honors are lifetime achievement awards in the performing arts. So "Saturday Night Live" cast members past and present couldn't resist asking why their boss, "SNL" creator, producer and writer Lorne Michaels, was getting one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN NEALON: I'm Kevin Nealon, and here are tonight's top stories. This evening in Washington, D.C., "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels, who shall remain nameless...

(LAUGHTER)

NEALON: ...Was presented with a Kennedy Center honor and recognition of his incredibly generous contribution.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Comedy, music, stage and screen, Bette Midler has done it all. Her friend, Goldie Hawn, said Midler did not pay any attention to rejection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOLDIE HAWN: She sang. She danced. She shook her assets. She created "The Divine Miss M."

BLAIR: Billy Porter performed a Bette Midler medley

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILLY PORTER: (Singing) On wings of angels, I know it's true.

BLAIR: Boxer turned songwriter and entrepreneur Berry Gordy founded Motown, the company that brought the soul of Detroit to the rest of the world with artists like Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVIE WONDER: Berry, I remember the first time we met. I really do. I was 11 years old and you said, OK, I heard you're good. What do you do? I said, I play harmonica and I sing. I says, as a matter of fact, I can sing better than Smokey Robinson.

BLAIR: Gordy knew how to handle youthful artistic ambitions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WONDER: (Singing) I feel like this is the beginning.

BLAIR: The 44th Kennedy Center Honors will air on CBS on December 22. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WONDER: (Singing) And if I thought our love was ending... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.