The "Piano Man" who became one of the world's best-selling artists of all time with such hits as "Just the Way You Are," ''Uptown Girl" and "Allentown" was awarded the nation's highest honor Sunday for influencing American culture through the arts.
Billy Joel joins Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, opera star Martina Arroyo and actress Shirley MacLaine in receiving the Kennedy Center Honors. All of them have been playing music, dancing or singing since they were children — and they have never stopped.
Joel said the honor stands apart from his six Grammys.
"This is different. It's our nation's capital," he told The Associated Press. "This is coming more from my country than just people who come to see me. It's a little overwhelming."
The 64-year-old musician born in the Bronx has been playing the piano since he was a boy, growing up on New York's Long Island. There was always music in the house, he said. His mother sang. His father played the piano.
Impressing girls, though, is what hooked Joel into making a career of music, he said.
Joel just announced a 2014 concert series at Madison Square Garden in New York "to avoid schlepping around the world," but he still plans to play concerts nationwide.
President Barack Obama saluted the honorees Sunday night, and top entertainers will offer tribute performances for each honoree. The show will be broadcast Dec. 29.
"The diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven't just proven themselves to be the best of the best," Obama said. "Despite all their success, all their fame, they've remained true to themselves — and inspired the rest of us to do the same."
On Saturday night, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the honorees for a black-tie dinner at the State Department.
Garth Brooks toasted Joel at the dinner, saying his legacy would live on for generations. He said Joel has a special talent for writing songs about everyday people, from steel workers in "Allentown" to soldiers fighting in Vietnam in "Goodnight Saigon."
"Music has a wonderful gift," Brooks said. "For those that do it right, they can put you in shoes that you would never understand if it wasn't for that song."
Santana, 66, a Mexican immigrant who began learning English from American television, is one of only a few Latinos who have received the honor so far.
Santana first picked up the guitar after hearing blues and rock 'n' roll on the radio. He has said his career is about bridging cultures and fusing sounds to create something new. He grew up with the Woodstock generation after moving to San Francisco, but is perhaps best known for his album "Supernatural." It won nine Grammys.
Kerry said Santana brought the beauty of Latin culture and its rhythms and influences to the American mainstream.
"We love the music you made, not because it's Latin, but frankly because it is so very American," Kerry said.
Hancock, 73, got his start at the piano at age 7 while growing up in Chicago. Soon he was playing Mozart and discovered jazz in high school. He joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963 and later set out to create his own sounds, fusing jazz, funk, pop, gospel, soul and the blues. He has won an Oscar and 14 Grammy Awards so far.
Arroyo found opera while imitating the singers outside an opera workshop when she was growing up in Harlem. Soon she was signing a contract with New York's Metropolitan Opera and had a breakthrough with "Aida" in 1965. She went on to star in the great opera houses of London, Paris and Vienna.
Opera star Jessye Norman said Arroyo, now 76, has a voice "that makes you happy to be alive, just to be in her audience."
MacLaine, 79, has been acting on stage and screen for six decades ever since she began ballet at age 3. Her film debut came in 1955's "The Trouble with Harry," directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and she won the Oscar for best actress for "Terms of Endearment" in 1983. More recently she's been playing a role in "Downton Abbey" on PBS.
MacLaine's younger brother Warren Beatty also has won a Kennedy Center Honor, making them the first brother and sister to both receive the honor.