By Patrick Rucker and Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Music legend Led Zeppelin was recognized on Sunday alongside entertainers from stage and screen for their contributions to the arts and American culture at the Kennedy Center Honors, lifetime achievement awards for performing artists.
The eclectic tribute in Washington, alternated between solemn veneration and lighthearted roasting of honorees Academy Award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman, wisecracking late-night talk show host David Letterman, blues guitar icon Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova and Led Zeppelin.
"I worked with the speechwriters - there is no smooth transition from ballet to Led Zeppelin," President Barack Obama deadpanned while introducing the honorees in a ceremony in the White House East Room.
Friends, contemporaries and a new generation of artists influenced by the honorees took the stage in tribute.
"Dustin Hoffman is a pain the ass," actor Robert DeNiro said in introducing Hoffman, the infamously perfectionist star of such celebrated films as "The Graduate" and "Tootsie."
"And he inspired me to be a bit of a pain in the ass too," DeNiro said with a big smile.
At a weekend dinner for the winners at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that the performing arts often requires a touch of diplomacy as she toasted Makarova, a dance icon in the former Soviet Union when she defected in 1970.
Tiler Peck of the New York City Ballet, who performed in "Other Dances," one of Makarova's signature roles, said she has studied her idol's technique for years.
"This is a role she created," Peck said.
Despite the president's misgivings about his own speech, the performance at the Kennedy Center navigated the transition from refined ballet to gritty blues music when the spotlight turned to Guy, a sharecropper's son who made his first instrument with wire scrounged from around his family's home in rural Louisiana.
"He's one of the most idiosyncratic and passionate blues greats, and there are not many left of that original generation...," said Bonnie Raitt, who as an 18-year-old blues songstress was often the warm-up act for Guy.
George "Buddy" Guy, 76, was a pioneer in the Chicago blues style that pushed the sound of electrically amped guitar to the forefront of the music.
"You mastered the soul of gut bucket," actor Morgan Freeman told the Kennedy Center audience. "You made a bridge from roots to rock 'n roll."
In a toast on Saturday night, former President Bill Clinton talked of Guy's impoverished upbringing and how he improvised a guitar from the strands of a porch screen, paint can and his mother's hair pins.
"In Buddy's immortal phrase, the blues is 'Something you play because you have it. And when you play it, you lose it.'"
It was a version of the blues that drifted over the Atlantic to Britain and came back in the finger-rattling rock sound of Led Zeppelin.
Jimmy Page, 68, was the guitar impresario who anchored the compositions with vocalist Robert Plant, 64, howling and screeching out the soul. Bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, 66, rounded out the band with drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980.
The incongruity of the famously hard-partying rock stars sitting in black tie under chandeliers at a White House ceremony was not lost on Obama.
"Of course, these guys also redefined the rock and roll lifestyle," the president said, to laughter and sheepish looks from the band members.
"So it's fitting that we're doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick - and Secret Service all around," Obama said. "So, guys, just settle down."
The gala will be aired on CBS television on December 26.
(Reporting By Patrick Rucker and Mark Felsenthal)