Heralded as a musical genius who rose from a British shipyard hometown to make his mark, Sting will receive the nation's highest honor Sunday for influencing American culture through the arts.
Top performers and power players from Hollywood, Broadway and Washington have 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. On Tuesday, Sting will join the Broadway cast "The Last Ship" in his musical about his hometown.
"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. "In an age of musical homogenization, no one has ever sounded or sang like my friend."
Sting, 63, told The Associated Press 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 with the secretary of state, it's quite a journey. So I don't take it for granted."
President Barack 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.
At the East Room reception, Obama invoked John F. Kennedy in quoting the late president as once saying, "The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose."
The president later chatted with several of those present. And Obama evem joked with Sting that he is called by one name all around the world while the president of the United States gets the acronym POTUS.
"POTUS is a pretty good nickname, but let's face it; it's not as cool as `Sting.' " Obama said to laughter. "I'm stuck with `POTUS."'
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," "Apollo 13," "Saving Private Ryan" and 2013's "Captain Phillips."
"Each one was shaped by the same man's imagination," Stevens said. "Each one has clarity, honesty, humor, humanity, and each one has a deep sense of hope and aspiration."
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" with her popular characters of Ernestine, the telephone operator, and Edith Ann, a little girl.
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 insider's circle, but here I am," she said.
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," "Take Me to the River" and "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)." His songs have been covered by Annie Lennox, Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen and even Obama, who has famously sung a few lines from "Let's Stay Together."
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. It's a role she would hold for 28 years, performing around the world. She gave her farewell performance in 1989 and was showered with nearly 13,000 roses.
Dancer Edward Villella hailed McBride as "one of our great national dance treasures."
Now, McBride works to pass on Balanchine's legacy as a teacher for young dancers. She and her husband, dancer Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, run the Charlotte Ballet in North Carolina.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who hosted a dinner for the honorees, said art is a transformational force around the world and a powerful way to showcase American culture.