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WASHINGTON (AP) — Meryl Streep may have gotten her next film assignment, Neil Diamond thanked the namesake of his famous tune “Sweet Caroline,” and a tux-clad Elmo honored his friend, Yo-Yo Ma. They were among several luminaries from Broadway, jazz and classical music to receive the Kennedy Center Honors Sunday night for their influence on American culture through the arts.
Caroline Kennedy, who hosts the annual show as part of a living memorial to her assassinated father, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, acknowledged her personal connection to one honoree.
In a nod to Diamond, she said he was “a Brooklyn lad with a gift of melody who grew into a solitary man, ‘reaching out, touching me.’” That was enough to draw big laughs from the crowd of celebrities and politicians recalling that Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” was named for her.
“I’m going to have to thank her for that,” Diamond said before the show.
He noted the song is a story about him and his ex-wife. But he took the name from Kennedy.
Smokey Robinson sang “Sweet Caroline” with help from Kennedy and fans brought in from Boston’s Fenway Park where it’s a favorite anthem.
Lionel Richie, who sang, “I Am ... I Said,” told the AP that he got into the music business because he wanted to be Diamond.
“He’s a great storyteller,” Richie said. “He’s not an acrobatic singer. Basically he told the story in a very simple voice.”
Earlier, President Barack Obama lauded the actors and musicians at the White House.
“They have different talents, and they’ve traveled different paths,” Obama said. “And yet they belong here together because each of tonight’s honorees has felt the need to express themselves and share that expression with the world.”
He said everyone has that desire for self-expression in common.
“That’s why we dance, even if, as Michelle says, I look silly doing it,” he said to laughter.
Classical music stole the show’s finale with surprise tributes from Stephen Colbert — who seemed lost at first — and Elmo from TV’s “Sesame Street.”
“Tonight we celebrate the greatest living cellist,” Colbert said “We chell-ebrate, if you will.”
Ma, one of the best-known classical musicians, has played cello since he was 4. At age 7, he played for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Now at 56, he is hailed as a musical ambassador to the world who has spanned styles from Bluegrass to sounds from the Silk Road with an ensemble he founded. Many of his friends performed in his honor.
Elmo, dressed in a tux, said he came to honor Ma, who taught him that “music is like a playground” that makes everyone happy.
And earlier, Obama jokingly looked to Ma for some advice.
“Everybody likes him,” Obama said. “You’ve got to give me some tips. I thought about asking him to go talk to Congress.”
CBS will broadcast the show on Dec. 27.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew home for less than 36 hours between diplomatic travels to honor the artists with a dinner Saturday night. After visiting the isolated Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, Clinton said such U.S. artists have worldwide influence by using their freedom of creativity.