Guy, 76, a sharecropper’s son from Louisiana who made his first guitar from old paint cans and wire, beamed at the anthem, which Raitt delivered in a sultry growl, joined by guitarist Jeff Beck, singer-guitarist Tracy Chapman and other performers.
Guy was seated with President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and the six other award winners: actor Dustin Hoffman, comedian David Letterman, ballerina Natalia Makarova and three British rockers from Led Zeppelin.
Actor Morgan Freeman, heralding Guy, said he mastered the soul of the “gutbucket” South and found a “new music that no one has ever heard before.” He said Guy “went viral” before the Internet, YouTube, and even FM radio, inspiring the likes of Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.
With political heavyweights and business titans ensconced at the black-tie awards show, the night leapt from the grace of the pas de deux to the growl of the blues, punctuated with some raucous laughter in between.
Throughout, the honorees’ megawatt peers heaped praise. Robert De Niro and Naomi Watts heralded Hoffman, Judith Jamison sang the praises of Makarova, Jack Black lauded Led Zeppelin and Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Jimmy Kimmel and Ray Romano saluted — but mostly skewered — Letterman.
Fey joked that Letterman began his career “as a black opera singer in the ’50s, just so he could win this award.”
Baldwin described Letterman as a homebody who was forced to travel, wear a tux and sit in a box for two hours — and “then we don’t let him say anything.”
“For 30 years, David Letterman has made late-night TV more fun and clever, more original and crazy, than it would have been without you,” Baldwin said.
Hoffman, who has starred in such films as “The Graduate,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “All the President’s Men” and “Tootsie,” “made it OK to be a character actor and a movie star,” said De Niro.
He recalled first meeting Hoffman at a party in 1968. “I was his waiter,” De Niro said. “It was an instant connection when he said to me, ‘How’s the flounder?’”
Black enthused about the “Zepathon,” listening to nine Led Zeppelin albums in a row. Others borrowed from their hit, “Whole Lotta Love,” in lauding the band’s three living members: John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
The host of the awards show was Caroline Kennedy, who said Makarova gave new excitement to the words “prima ballerina.” The former Kirov Ballet dancer defected from the Soviet Union in 1970 and debuted that year with the American Ballet Theatre.
Guy came to Chicago on a one-way train ticket in 1957. He has a nightclub, Buddy Guy’s Legends, downtown and a home in Orland Park.
Touring widely — recent stops included India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore and Brazil — he made headlines in February when he and B.B. King persuaded Obama to sing a few bars of “Sweet Home Chicago” during a White House tribute to the blues.
Guy returned Sunday for a preshow reception with the Obamas and the other honorees.
Leading up to the show, Guy said in an interview that the honor conjures memories of his blues mentors. “I always take honors like this and look up and say these honors should have went to the guys I learned everything from. People like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Fred McDowell and Son House. I wouldn’t be nothin’ if it wouldn’t be for them,” he said.
He spoke Saturday at a candlelit soiree at the State Department, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was host and actress Meryl Streep was emcee.
Former President Bill Clinton delivered a toast to Guy, saying he had traveled from a cotton patch to the concrete jungle of Chicago to emerge as the “greatest living blues guitarist.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, among the dinner guests, said in an interview that Guy was a “great Chicago treasure” whose songs told the story of the great migration of African-Americans to the North.
The awards show airs on CBS on Dec. 26.