By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington celebrated singer-songwriter James Taylor, actor Al Pacino, and gospel vocalist Mavis Staples at the annual Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday in a night of music punctuated by the approaching end of President Barack Obama's time in office.
Obama lauded the five honorees, including pianist Martha Argerich and rock band the Eagles, at a White House ceremony that will be his last before stepping down in January.
"The arts are always central to American life," he said, noting a string of performances his family had enjoyed over eight years at the White House. "This is one of the perks of the job that I will miss."
Politics and the recent election of Republican Donald Trump to the presidency influenced the atmosphere of the evening. Host Stephen Colbert opened the show with a welcome to "endangered swamp dwellers," a reference to Trump's pledge to drain "the swamp" of Washington when his administration begins.
The surprise appearance of former President Bill Clinton with a tribute to Taylor also underscored the results of the election, in which his wife, former Secretary of State and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, lost to Trump.
Still, the evening belonged to the honorees and the performers who feted them. Singers Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, and Garth Brooks sent up Taylor, who is known for hits such as "Sweet Baby James" and "You've got a Friend."
"He has been and he still is the sweet and steady voice of our better angels," Clinton said of Taylor.
Actor Pacino, star of "The Godfather" and "Scent of a Woman," drew praise from friend and fellow actor Sean Penn for making the gods of acting smile.
"I'll Take You There" singer Staples told reporters she was honored to be part of the last group of awardees under Obama.
"It feels wonderful," she said. "I'm really happy."
Classical pianist Martha Argerich, a one-time child prodigy from Argentina, was feted by opera great Placido Domingo for her spirit.
Rock band the Eagles, famous for songs such as "Hotel California," "Take it Easy," and "Desperado," were honored with performances by singers including Vince Gill and Bob Seger. The night was shadowed in some sadness, however; band member Glenn Frey died in January.
Don Henley, Timothy Schmit, and Joe Walsh were present in his absence.
"We miss him terribly," Schmit told reporters.
The program will be broadcast by CBS on Dec. 27.
(Additional reporting by Yegenah Torbati)