The Library of Congress bestowed its annual Gershwin Prize for Popular Song last night at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., and it was a historic night on two fronts.
Gloria and Emilio Estefan became the first husband-and-wife pair to receive the prestigious honor together, as well as the first Hispanic-Americans to receive the award.
“As Cuban Americans, I wish our parents were here to see this,” Gloria Estefan told WTOP. “For my mom, it was incredibly important to maintain our culture. … I think that it enriches your life when you know who you are — and that’s what we try to keep alive.”
The night reflected the Cuban music influences that the Estefans brought to the Miami Sound Machine over a career that has spanned four decades and garnered 26 Grammys.
The show kicked off with the original cast of Broadway’s “On Your Feet,” including “Conga,” “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” “Turn the Beat Around,” “Everlasting Love” and “On Your Feet.”
“I was chosen to play the part and she immediately was so welcoming and warm and just real, a real human being,” star Ana Villafañe told WTOP. “For me coming from a fan perspective, I didn’t know her prior, it was just surreal. She took me very much under her wing; she brought her voice coach from Australia to train her in her style, and was there every step of the way.”
Iconic composer Quincy Jones — who is godfather to the Estefans’ daughter — took the podium to hand over the award to the Estefans, who launched into a performance of “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” with Gloria belting her signature voice as Emilio played the bongos.
Latin legend Jose Feliciano performed Gershwin’s iconic tune “Our Love is Here to Stay.”
“Romance isn’t barriered by language,” Feliciano said. “Everybody can feel a good song whether it’s in Spanish or English. If the song is romantic, they’ll feel it in any language.”
Patti LaBelle joined a gospel choir to perform “Coming Out of the Dark,” which Emilio wrote for Gloria as she recovered from her backbreaking bus accident in 1990.
LaBelle also joined Cyndi Lauper for a duet of Estefan’s Olympic anthem “Reach.”
“They’re the OGs of every Latin group that crossed over here,” Lauper said.
Other tributes included Fernando Varela, Gian Marco, Sarah Chang and, perhaps most touching, a duet between Gloria and her daughter Emily Estefan.
“It’s nerve wracking — and taking on any of her songs is even tougher,” Emily said. “I try to put that to the side and just celebrate her. Honestly, I could just whistle and she’s still my biggest fan. It’s not hard to impress her.”
The evening was hosted by actors Andy Garcia and Rita Moreno, who earned a standing ovation singing “Somewhere” from her Oscar-winning film “West Side Story.”
“To be honored as a composer or songwriter by a Gershwin award is like winning the Super Bowl,” Garcia said. “There’s no higher singer-songwriter that you could be associated with than the Gershwins. I’m very honored to be here to support my friends, Gloria and Emilio.”
The broadcast airs May 3 on PBS.