Get To Know The 44th Kennedy Center's Honorees

Read the recipients' statements and learn about the achievements of Justino Díaz, Berry Gordy, Bette Midler, Lorne Michaels, and Joni Mitchell.
Posted on Dec 17, 2021 | 11:00am
The Kennedy Center Honors have upheld a tradition of recognizing the lifelong accomplishments and extraordinary talents of our nations' most-prestigious artists.

Before you watch The 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors on Wednesday, Dec. 22 at 9/8c on CBS, the CBS app, and Paramount+ get to know more about each honoree and their thoughts on receiving this distinguished accolade.

Justino Díaz (Operatic Bass-Baritone)

"I’m deeply grateful to be receiving this Honor. It is especially thrilling for me because 50 years ago I sang as the male lead in Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci on the Opera House stage at the Kennedy Center’s grand opening—the night after Bernstein’s Mass. I was the first operatic voice to christen the walls of this wonderful institution all those years ago and I am beyond honored to return to this stage to have such a distinction bestowed on me. I am humbled as I assume my place amongst so many wonderful peers and talented artists." –Justino Díaz

Born January 29, 1940, and a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Justino Díaz started performing at the age of eight and attended the University of Puerto Rico and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. His operatic debut was in 1957 as Ben in Menotti’s The Telephone. Díaz made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1963 in Verdi’s Rigoletto as Monterone. There he went on to sing in 400 performances, across 21 seasons, in 39 roles. In 1966, he inaugurated the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City together with Leontyne Price in Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber. In 1971, he inaugurated the Kennedy Center Opera House, where he performed the leading male role in Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci—following Center’s opening night of Bernstein’s Mass. Among the opera companies in which Díaz has performed are: La Scala; Paris Opera; The Vienna Staatsoper; Salzburg Festival; Spoleto Festival; Rome Opera; The Royal Opera in London; the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires; the Zarzuela Theater of Madrid; and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. Throughout his career, Díaz sang with leading symphony orchestras around the world under the direction of the most celebrated conductors. Díaz has made many recordings of opera and oratorios. In 1986, Díaz played the role of Iago opposite Plácido Domingo in Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Otello. Previously he starred in the role of Escamillo in the film version of Carmen, conducted and directed by Herbert von Karajan.
Justino Díaz is married to Ilsa Rodriguez. He has two daughters by a previous marriage; Helen Hayes Award-winning stage and screen actress Natascia Díaz and composer and singer Katya Díaz.

Recent Kennedy Center History
Justino Díaz originated the role of Francesco in the September 10, 1971 world premiere of Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci, performed for the then Opera Society of Washington (now Washington National Opera), which inaugurated the Kennedy Center Opera House. Additionally, Díaz has appeared in a number of Washington National Opera productions over the years, most recently Otello and Il Trovatore (2000). He has also made several appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra most recently in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24 with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting (1991.) 

Berry Gordy (Motown founder, songwriter, producer, director)

"The arts not only give voice to the voiceless, but connect us, transform us, and soothe our souls. The Kennedy Center Honors epitomizes the recognition and value of both the Arts and the Artist. I am thrilled to become a part of this prestigious American legacy. Growing up in Detroit, I was not only Black but the “black sheep” of my family. I was a failure at everything I did until I was 29 years old, while my younger brother Robert was not only a family favorite but strangely, a favorite of mine as well. He inspired me with his loyalty, love, and graciousness. Throughout the years I’ve been blessed with many wonderful memories, but this—the Kennedy Center Honors—is one that will be forever in my heart. Thank you." – Berry Gordy

A man of vision, drive, talent, and determination, Berry Gordy became a boxer, songwriter, producer, director, entrepreneur, and founded Motown—the hit-making enterprise born in Detroit, Michigan. He discovered and nurtured the careers of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and many other music greats and is responsible for the “Motown Sound" that reached out across a racially divided, politically and socially charged country, to transform popular music.

In the 1960s, Gordy moved his artists into television, being among the first Black artists on shows like American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. Actively involved in the Civil Rights movement, he released the recorded speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Expanding to films, his movies include Mahogany, his directorial debut, and Lady Sings the Blues, which garnered five Academy Award® nominations. Over the years, Gordy has received four honorary doctorates and numerous awards and inductions including Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, the naming of Berry Gordy Square at Sunset Blvd and Argyle Avenue in Hollywood, the Rainbow Coalition’s Man of the Millennium Award, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Grammy President’s Merit Award, the National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame Award.

Berry Gordy’s unparalleled contribution to music and popular culture is chronicled in his autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown. It is the basis for his play, Motown the Musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2013, garnering four Tony nominations, and The New York Times calling it Broadway’s "biggest box office hit of the year."

2019 marked a year-long celebration of Motown’s 60th Anniversary, with the CBS special Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration, the release of his critically acclaimed documentary, Hitsville: The Making of Motown— and wrapping up the year in Detroit where it all began, with Mr. Gordy being awarded the Motown Museum’s Legacy Award at the Motown 60 Weekend and Hitsville Honors. 

Recent Kennedy Center History
This is Berry Gordy’s first association with the Kennedy Center.

Lorne Michaels (television producer and screenwriter)

"The Kennedy Center’s commitment to the performing arts has always been an important force in American culture. Being acknowledged here and included in this company is an honor in the truest sense. I am deeply grateful." –Lorne Michaels

Lorne Michaels is an award-winning producer and writer, best known as the creator and executive producer of Saturday Night Live, the most Emmy®-nominated show in television history. Born in Toronto in 1944, Michaels attended the University of Toronto and later began his television career in Canada and Los Angeles. He arrived in New York in 1975 to begin SNL.

Michaels’television credits as an executive producer also include The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers, 30 Rock, Portlandia, and Kids in the Hall, among others. His motion picture credits include Three Amigos, Wayne’s World, Tommy Boy, MeanGirls, and MacGruber, to name a few. His TV specials have featured Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, the Rutles, Flip Wilson, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, and Adele. On Broadway, he produced and directed Golda Radner – Live From New York and recently produced MeanGirls, the theTony®-nominated Broadway musical based on the hit movie.

Michaels’ 93 Emmy® nominations are the most ever for an individual. He received the 2004 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and in 2013 earned the rare honor of an individual Peabody Award. In 2016, Michaels was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2018.

Recent Kennedy Center History
Lorne Michaels received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2004. Additionally, he was part of the guest cast paying tribute to Mark Twain Prize recipients Dave Chappelle (2019), Tina Fay (2010), and Steve Martin (2005.) 

Bette Midler (singer, songwriter, and actress)

"I am profoundly touched by this honor, in fact, I am stunned and grateful beyond words. For many years I have watched this broadcast celebrating the best talent in the performing arts that America has to offer, and I truly never imagined that I would find myself among these swans. Thank you to the Kennedy Center for recognizing me, and my heartfelt thanks to everyone who put me here." –Bette Midler

As one of the world's most beloved entertainers, Bette Midler has garnered accolades across all facets of show business. Midler’s expansive body of work has spanned nearly six decades across different genres, eras, and media. She has been recognized with four Grammy Awards®, two Academy Award® nominations, three Emmy Awards®, two Tony Awards®, three Golden Globe Awards, and nine American Comedy Awards. One of the best-selling female singers, her albums have sold over 30 million copies worldwide. In addition to her career as a performer, Midleris was active in various social causes and in 1995 founded the New York Restoration Project, an open space conservancy and NewYorkCity’s largest private land trust. NYRP is dedicated to protecting and preserving community gardens and other green spaces throughout all five boroughs, and in collaboration with the New York, City ParksDepartment has planted over 1,000,000 trees in New York City.

With her fresh and audacious perspective, Bette Midler is a living legend. Originally from Hawaii, Midler currently resides in New York City.

Recent Kennedy Center History
Bette Midler performed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on March 11, 1973, as part of The Divine Miss M Tour. Additionally, she was among the guest cast appearing in a video tribute for 43rd Kennedy Center Honoree, Midori.

Joni Mitchell (singer-songwriter)

Joni Mitchell is an artist of unparalleled gifts as a poet, a songwriter, a musician, a producer, and a painter. She is an icon of modern music and one of the most influential creators of our age. Nearly 60 years after her first performances in Canadian coffee shops and nightclubs, the legend of Mitchell’s genius continues to grow.

Mitchell signed to Reprise Records in 1968, the same year she released her debut, Song To A Seagull. The albums that followed set a new standard for the marriage of music and lyrics and made her the premier female singer-songwriter of a revolutionary new generation of artists. With songs like “Both Sides, Now,” “Chelsea Morning,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” and “The Circle Game,” Mitchell became a household name. She also redefined the role of women musicians by overseeing all aspects of her albums, including songwriting, arrangements, performance, production, and artwork.

While Joni Mitchell’s early music is often categorized as “folk,” her sound draws as much from jazz, classical, and rock, and often encompasses bespoke tunings and song structures that defy categorization. Lyrically she delves deeply into both the personal and political, unafraid to explore the raw reality living underneath societal norms and time-worn traditions.

The accolades bestowed on Mitchell have been vast, including multiple Grammy Awards®, the Polar Music Prize, and inductions into both the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. In her native Canada, Mitchell has received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Canada’s highest honor in the performing arts, and has been named a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honor.

Joni Mitchell has never stopped making art, most recently launching the Joni Mitchell Archives, which began with her curating her vast catalog to reveal hours of previously unissued studio and live recordings. The next release from the archives, Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968 to 1971), will be available in October 2021.

Recent Kennedy Center History
This is Joni Mitchell’s first association with the Kennedy Center.

Watch the 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors on Wednesday, Dec. 22 at 9/8c on the CBS Television Network, and available to stream live and on-demand on the CBS app, and Paramount+.