- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

WASHINGTON — The good times never seemed so good for Neil Diamond.

Known for his songs that have become anthems at ballparks and bars, Mr. Diamond was chosen Wednesday to receive a Kennedy Center honor this year along with some of the biggest names from Broadway, jazz, classical music and Hollywood.

Mr. Diamond will be honored with Broadway singer Barbara Cook, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, saxophonist Sonny Rollins and actress Meryl Streep for their contributions to American culture through the arts. President Obama will salute the artists, and others will perform in their honor at a ceremony at the Kennedy Center. CBS will broadcast the show Dec. 27.

Mr. Diamond said he was “flying way above sea level” when he heard about the honor.

“I’ve watched, and I’ve seen, and I’ve even dreamed that someday that would happen to me,” he told the Associated Press. “But I never really believed that it would.”

Mr. Diamond said he used to get distracted when people sang along with him to hits such as “Sweet Caroline,” which was written for presidential daughter Caroline Kennedy.

“But I realized pretty quickly that it was a compliment and I had no choice in the matter anyway, so I got with the program and just learned to love it,” said Mr. Diamond, who was inducted this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The 70-year-old Diamond also tweeted Wednesday that he was engaged to a woman named Katie — but wouldn’t tell AP who she was so that she wouldn’t “change her mind.”

Miss Streep, 62, has made more than 45 movies and has won two Oscars in a career that spans from Shakespeare to ABBA with the movie “Mamma Mia.” Some of her biggest hits have come in recent years with “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated.” In the upcoming biopic “The Iron Lady,” Miss Streep will play British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The actress said she is deeply honored by the Kennedy Center’s nod and wishes her parents were alive to see it.

“All that education, allowance, tuition, voice lessons, summer jobs, scholarship application deadlines and loving care and discipline — all that they gave me — bore fruit in a way they never dreamed,” she said in a statement.

Mr. Ma is one of the best-known classical musicians. He played for President Kennedy and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower at age 7 at a fundraiser for a national cultural center that would later become the Kennedy Center. The 55-year-old said he feels too young to be receiving such an award for lifetime achievements.

The son of Chinese parents who lived in Paris and moved to New York said some of his musical heroes have won the Kennedy Center Honors, including Mstislav Rostropovich and Leon Fleisher, so he was stunned to be joining their ranks. He said the honors event is an important moment each year to nurture the arts.

“The whole nation gets together to celebrate essentially the accomplishments of the human spirit,” he told AP. “It really is to celebrate, in a sense, what people who are passionate are capable of doing.”

Mr. Rollins, who turned 81 on Wednesday, has shared the stage with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, among others.

“I definitely feel that this award is not so much for me as it is for some of the great, great jazz artists that preceded me,” he said. “I’m very happy that it’s an honor for jazz because I think jazz is such an important spiritual force all over the world.”

Miss Cook made her Broadway debut in 1951 and later was cast in Voltaire’s “Candide” and Meredith Wilson’s 1957 hit musical “The Music Man.” The Beatles later recorded the song she made popular, “Till There Was You.” Miss Cook said she cried when she received the letter informing her of the Kennedy Center Honors.

“It’s a kind of validation for me, for my whole life,” she said. “Because when I sing, I put my whole life, the good part, the bad part, I put that into my work.”

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