By BRETT ZONGKER, Associated Press
Known for his songs that have become anthems at ballparks and bars, Diamond was chosen Wednesday to receive the Kennedy Center Honors this year along with some of the biggest names from Broadway, jazz, classical music and Hollywood.
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 Barack Obama will salute the artists and others will perform in their honor at a ceremony at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 4. CBS will broadcast the show Dec. 27.
Diamond said he was "flying way above sea level" when 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."
Diamond said he used to get distracted when people sang along with him to hits like "Sweet Caroline," which was written for presidential daughter Caroline Kennedy who hosts the show.
"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 Diamond, who earlier this year was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He said he's planning another U.S. tour next summer after performing abroad recently.
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."
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," 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.
George Stevens Jr., who created the honors and produces the show with his son Michael Stevens, said each of this year's honorees is the best at what they do. The heart of the show, he said, is exploring their lives through filmed tributes.
Ma is one of the best-known classical musicians, playing the cello since he was 4. He played for six U.S. presidents, including President John F. Kennedy and President Dwight D. Eisenhower at age 7 at a fundraiser to build a national cultural center that would later become the Kennedy Center. In 2009, he played at Obama's inauguration and last year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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 are an important moment to nurture the arts each year.
"The whole nation gets together to celebrate essentially the accomplishments of the human spirit," he told AP, adding that society needs political, economic and cultural engines to succeed.
"The cultural part encompasses the arts and sciences," he said. "That's the seed for actual creativity."
Rollins, who turned 81 on Wednesday, has shared the stage with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. He is one of the last surviving giants of jazz from the golden era of the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
"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."
As a lifelong New Yorker, Rollins would practice for hours at night on the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Manhattan and Brooklyn. He could "play as loud as I want" and avoid disturbing his neighbors.
Cook, 83, made her Broadway debut in 1951 and later was cast in Leonard Bernstein's musical version of Voltaire's "Candide," which she considers the most difficult thing she's ever sang, and Meredith Wilson's 1957 hit musical "The Music Man," for which she won a Tony.
The Beatles later recorded the song she made popular, "Till There Was You." She returned to Broadway last year for "Sondheim on Sondheim" after spending years on her own concerts and solo albums.
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."