WASHINGTON - Heralded as a musical genius who rose from a British shipyard hometown to make his mark, Sting was to receive the nation's highest honor Sunday for influencing American culture through the arts.
Top performers and power players from Hollywood, Broadway, and Washington gathered to honor five artists who will receive this year's Kennedy Center Honors. Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin, singer Al Green, and ballerina Patricia McBride will join Sting in receiving the arts prize.
Sting broke out in 1978 with his band the Police with such hits as "Roxanne" and later "Every Breath You Take" before starting his solo career. He has been performing for four decades and has won 16 Grammy Awards.
Bruce Springsteen, who offered a toast for Sting at a State Department dinner Saturday, said the breadth and depth of Sting's talents are intimidating as he crosses from folk music to jazz, classical, pop, rock, and reggae.
"Sting makes me feel like a musical Neanderthal. When we get together, we always have the same argument. He insists that there are more than three chords, while I insist that there are not," Springsteen said.
Sting, 63, said he was bewildered by the honor.
"You know, for an Englishman to receive this reward, it's not unique, but it's rare, and I take that pretty seriously," he said. "To come to this country in 1978 with no prospects at all and then to end up here . . . it's quite a journey. So I don't take it for granted."
President Obama saluted the honorees Sunday at the White House before a gala performance in their honor hosted by Stephen Colbert. The show will be broadcast Dec. 30 on CBS.
Filmmaker George Stevens Jr., who created the Kennedy Center Honors and produces the show each year, said Hanks, 58, stands apart as "one of the great actors of his generation or any generation."
Hanks created powerful characters in films that include Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, and 2013's Captain Phillips.
Hanks joked that a mistake must have been made in the choice for a fifth honoree.
"A lot of times in the trophy season, it's for work you did a few months ago," he said. "This is the work I started in 1981, so it all works out OK."
Tomlin, 75, made her career in comedy after moving to New York City as a waitress. Soon she would make her TV debut on The Garry Moore Show in 1966 and, within a few years, joined the cast of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Tomlin went on to create memorable comedy specials, Broadway shows, and movie roles, including 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton.
Tomlin said she couldn't believe she was receiving the Kennedy Center Honors. "I've never been privy to the insiders' circle," she said, "but here I am."
Green, 68, was born to sharecroppers in Arkansas. He made his name touring the gospel circuits of the South and now is one of the defining voices of Memphis soul. His hits include Let's Stay Together and Take Me to the River. His songs have been covered by Annie Lennox, Dave Matthews, and Bruce Springsteen.
McBride, 72, has forged her artistic career in dance. She joined the New York City Ballet at 16 after studying under the great choreographer George Balanchine and quickly became the company's youngest principal dancer at 18. She gave her farewell performance in 1989 and was showered with nearly 13,000 roses.