Kennedy Center Honors: The Show’s Most Memorable Performances

There’s a reason the word honors is in the title. To help celebrate the lifetime contributions of artists in music, dance, theater, opera, movies and TV, the Kennedy Center Honors routinely pay tribute to its recipients by rewarding them with memorable performances.

Scores of artists have been feted since the Honors got their start in 1978, but there are certain tributes that remain sketched in our hearts forever. In anticipation of the 46th annual event honoring Billy Crystal, Renée Fleming, Barry Gibb, Queen Latifah, and Dionne Warwick on Dec. 27, we look back at some of the show’s most unforgettable performances — starting with Lenny Bernstein’s opening speech from the very first Kennedy Center Honors, of course.

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Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash honor Johnny Cash in 1996

Three of country’s greats performed hits from Cash’s eclectic songbook — “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Folsom Prison Blues.” and “Ring of Fire” — but it wasn’t until Cash’s daughter Rosanne took the stage did the legend finally break down (honorees aren’t told beforehand who will pay tribute to them). “My father is a man of many paradoxes,” she began. “He was raised on a farm and formed by hard, manual labor and he emerged a poet, with a powerful resonant voice. He was brought up a Baptist and yet he has the soul of a mystic. He’s lived a hard life, a tough life, and yet he has a sensitivity to beauty and elegance and children that is beyond compare. The tie that binds all of these things together is Johnny Cash the songwriter.” She then sung Cash’s signature tune “Walk the Line,” which she said her dad performed at every one of his concerts. (Watch it here).

Beyoncé performs “Proud Mary” to honor Tina Turner in 2005

It probably took all of two seconds for the Kennedy Center to decide who would be the best woman to sing the Turner classic. The beloved honoree giggled in delight as Beyoncé walked on stage and said, “I’ll never forget the first time I saw you perform. I never in my life saw a woman so powerful, so fearless, so fabulous. And those legs!” Her subsequent performance was so electrifying, she had even Tom Brokaw bouncing his head in delight. Beyoncé would go on to perform the song again — but this time, with Turner — at the 2008 Grammys.

Jon Stewart and Sting celebrate Bruce Springsteen in 2009

Kennedy Center pulled out all the stops for The Boss by recruiting Sting to perform a gorgeous, chorus-backed rendition of “The Rising” that brought everyone, Springsteen included, to their feet (You can see it here). But to kick off the tribute, Jon Stewart took the stage and delivered what remains the best joke ever delivered on the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts stage. “I am not a music critic, nor historian or an archivist. I cannot tell you where Bruce Springsteen falls in the pantheon of the American songbook. I cannot illuminate the context of his work, or its roots, and the folk and oral history traditions of our great nation. But I am from New Jersey. And so, I can you tell you what I believe, and what I believe is this: I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby. And they abandoned this child, as you can imagine at the time, interracial same sex relationships being what they were, they abandoned this child at the side of the road between the exit interchanges of 8A and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike. That child is Bruce Springsteen.”

Mavis Staples and James Taylor honor Paul McCartney in 2010

McCartney seemed positively giddy when Taylor took the stage to perform the Beatles gem “Let it Be.” But when Taylor and Mavis Staples kicked off the truly addictive portion of the song — those signature nah nah nahs followed by the iconic Hey Jude — the room erupted as the audience leapt to their feet and began waving illuminated orbs in the darkened theater. You should start noticing a theme here; any Kennedy Center performance that comes with a massive chorus ends up being a showstopper for the ages.

Heart pays tribute to Led Zeppelin in 2012

This one never gets old to watch. First, the son of the late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, Jason, takes the stage behind the kit, prompting an elated Robert Plant to jump up and point back at the fortunate son. Then Ann and Nancy Wilson begin their exhilarating rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” made complete with a huge chorus of Bowler hat-wearing warblers. No slight to the magic that was created on stage, but the performance is all the more memorable because of the continuous camera cuts to Plant, John Paul Jones, and Jimmy Page. The moment when Jones looks over to Plant and the legendary vocalist looks back, you can almost hear their unspoken dialogue: “I know, man. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Bruno Mars honors Sting in 2014

Belting from the highest reaches of his voice, Mars opened his tribute to Sting with “So Lonely” before launching into his bouncy interpretation of “Message in a Bottle.” In between camera shots that caught Sting’s wife Trudie mouthing all the words, the stage filled with pals of Sting before celebs like Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga and Meryl Streep came out to croon a little “sending out an SOS” too. (Watch it here).

Aretha Franklin croons for Carole King in 2015

The lucky honoree had none other than the Queen of Soul to serenade her with one of her biggest hits — “A Natural Woman.” Resplendent in her floor length fur coat (which she took off to cheers later in the song), Franklin began the performance at the piano, which clearly blew away King (did she not know the ol’ girl could tickle the ivories, too?) From there, King couldn’t contain her excitement over what was transpiring on stage. It certainly brought tears to the eyes of President Obama. (Watch it here).

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