Kennedy Center Honors ready to welcome Clooney, U2, Knight, Grant, León on Sunday

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Sunday's Kennedy Center Honors (Part 1)

The 45th annual Kennedy Center Honors returns this Sunday in the nation’s capital.

The ceremony will honor actor and filmmaker George Clooney; Christian pop singer-songwriter Amy Grant; legendary soul, gospel and R&B singer Gladys Knight; Cuban-born American composer, conductor and educator Tania León; and the iconic Irish rock band U2, comprising Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.

“Every year is a challenging year because we think ‘Last year was the best year ever; how are we ever going to match that?’ but then we pull it all together and the honorees are just fabulous,” Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter told WTOP. “In this case, each of them is so thrilled and honored to be a part of this and seeing this as a really important moment in their career.”

Rutter joined WTOP to preview the honorees who are coming to town this week:

George Clooney

George Clooney poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘The Tender Bar’ during the 2021 BFI London Film Festival in London, Oct. 10, 2021. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP, File)

“He is indeed our generation’s Cary Grant,” Rutter said. “I haven’t really met a single person yet who has said, ‘He’s not really that good-looking.’ It’s the diversity of what he’s done, how he’s been a producer as well as an actor, but more than that, the role he plays off stage as well. He is truly a citizen-artist using his talents to make the world a better place.”

Not only did he win Oscars for acting in “Syriana” (2005) and producing “Argo” (2012), he’s also starred in a string of iconic roles in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (2000), “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001), “Michael Clayton” (2007), “Up in the Air” (2007), “The Descendants” (2011) and “Gravity” (2013). He also directed “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005).

And it all started with Dr. Ross on “ER.”

“We are all of a certain generation, and we all have our favorite shows,” Rutter said, “but this is one of those shows that I made a point of figuring out how to watch. Appointment television — imagine that!”

Gladys Knight

Gladys Knight performs at a special screening of “Summer of Soul” at The Richard Rodgers Amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park on June 19, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Jason Mendez/Invision/AP, File)

“Gladys is somebody who has had a relationship with this city and with the Honors — somebody we’ve listened to for so long, who changed the world, the way we think about her and her music-making,” Rutter said. “She has won so many Grammys in all kinds of different art forms. I mean, she was here for Garth Brooks. Can you remember that?!?”

Knight’s iconic group The Pips recorded tons of classic hits from “Midnight Train to Georgia” to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” but Rutter’s personal favorite?

“I think ‘That’s What Friends Are For.’ I think it’s so moving and it’s so extraordinary about the way in which she has worked with other artists,” Rutter said. “She’s a real collaborator, which I think is really wonderful. ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ pulls the heartstrings.”

Amy Grant

Amy Grant arrives at the 55th annual CMA Awards on Nov. 10, 2021, at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Ed Rode, File)

“She is really remarkable in how she has really blended into so many different art forms, how respected she is,” Rutter said. “I’m really excited about the tribute we are putting together for her. In the program book, we have a really long, loving tribute letter to Amy from Dolly Parton that is just magnificent and really speaks to who she is as a person — a beautiful humility.”

Grant shined in Christian radio before crossing over to pop with hits such as “Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat,” “Good for Me,” “That’s What Love is For” and “I Will Remember You.”

Could we see a surprise tribute performance by husband Vince Gill?

“The world is a possibility,” Rutter said. “If only you saw the smile on my face …”

Tania León

Tania Leon appears at the 55th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, on Feb. 10, 2013. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

“Tania León is a remarkable woman who has never been looking for the spotlight, but she has been driven from her earliest age to express herself through music,” Rutter said. “She found her way from Cuba to the United States and has ultimately played every kind of role in classical music, working across genres with dances, chamber music and all other forms.”

She won the Pulitzer Prize last year for a work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

Rutter has a personal connection to León that she is revealing for the first time on WTOP.

“This is the first time I’m telling anybody,” Rutter said. “The first thing that Tania said to me when I called her, after a great pause of silence was, ‘Will your father be there?’ My father was an early commissioner of Tania’s. I’m very proud of all that she has achieved.”

U2 (Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.)

Larry Mullen Jr, left, The Edge, Bono and Adam Clayton of U2 perform during a concert at the Apollo Theater hosted by SiriusXM on June 11, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

“The work of U2 and the way they connect through their music, the poetry of their music, the messaging of their music is so iconic,” Rutter said. “The worldwide recognition and appreciation for who they are as artists. It’s such a fascinating story that they have, how they came together and started the band, how they make decisions. … I’m so impressed by who they are as people.”

Their songs are transcendent (“Where the Streets Have No Name”), heartbreaking (“With or Without You”), political (“Pride: In the Name of Love”), spiritual (“Mysterious Ways”), humanist (“One”) and uplifting (“Beautiful Day”). What is Rutter’s personal favorite?

“I think that ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is really my favorite. … That one is moving to me. I love it,” Rutter said. “My husband said, ‘Sing me some U2 songs again?’ — this is the classical music geek — ‘Oh yes! I remember! Oh yes, I know this band!'”

In addition to the honorees seated in the balcony, there will also be plenty of surprise celebrity guest speakers and performers. Past highlights include Lady Gaga performing “If I Ever Lose My Faith” for Sting, Aretha Franklin singing “Natural Woman” for Carole King, and Heart performing a rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” that brought Led Zeppelin to tears.

Does Rutter have a personal favorite performance?

“What’s really wonderful about Kennedy Center Honors is that we always have very name-friendly, big, well-known celebrities, then we always have one or two artists that are perhaps less well known to the broad audience,” Rutter said. “Carmen de Lavallade, despite her remarkable career, was one of those artists, and the tribute put together for her by the dancers, speakers and musicians was so beautiful and I will always remember that one.”

Sunday’s ceremony will be filmed, and televised nationwide on CBS on Dec. 28 at 8 p.m.

“There are 364 other days of the year where we do other wonderful events at Kennedy Center, but this one night is the night that brings Hollywood, business, politics and international attention all into the same room. The arts are a place where we build empathy, understanding and connection. The room will be filled with people on both sides of the aisle.”

President Joe Biden is planning to attend after years of President Donald Trump skipping the ceremony due to protests by the honorees. The ceremony is returning to its bipartisan tradition, including President Jimmy Carter, President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

“This is the biggest night in Washington, I’d like to think,” Rutter said. “Last year, we did have both the president, first lady, vice president and second gentleman. We’re hoping that we can welcome them all back to the Kennedy Center as well.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Sunday's Kennedy Center Honors (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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