The group were announced as recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors over the weekend at its 42nd event, which took place at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s original members Verdine White, Philip Bailey, and Ralph Johnson, paid tribute to the group’s late founder and co-lead singer Maurice White, who passed away in February 2016 at his home in Los Angeles, California, due to complications from Parkinson’s disease.
“You can’t play any Earth, Wind & Fire songs without Maurice’s DNA being on it, so he’s always here and we’re always celebrating him and his vision,” Johnson, 68, told Billboard. “People are still coming together and having fun.”
Hinting toward a possible duets album in the future, Bailey said: “We’re making a list, and checking it twice. And you’ll hear about it soon.”
“There are so many more African American acts that are deserving and perhaps this can be the first of many more to come,” he added.
Congratulations to Earth, Wind and Fire!
The ground-breaking disco/ funk/ rhythm and blues band is the first African-American musical group to be inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors.
Watch the event Dec. 15 on CBS. pic.twitter.com/WlJLzOUhpk
— Rep. Donald Payne Jr (@RepDonaldPayne) December 9, 2019
Other honorees recognized at the event included Oscar-winning actress Sally Field, singer Linda Ronstadt, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and the long-running children’s TV show “Sesame Street.”
Around 40 Congress members attended the 42nd Kennedy Center Honors, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who received a standing ovation when her name was mentioned. Also in attendance were Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reported Billboard.
Sunday’s event featured a genuinely unique event for the Kennedy Center as Big Bird walked the red carpet along with fellow “Sesame Street” characters Bert and Ernie, Abby, and Cookie Monster, accompanied by their respective humans.
The massive yellow avian’s appearance held a particular resonance as Caroll Spinney, Big Bird’s original puppeteer, died last Sunday at age 85.
“I’m heartbroken that this happened on this particular day,” said Sonia Manzano, who played Maria for decades on “Sesame Street.” “But I’m glad we’re all together.”
Earth, Wind & Fire’s segment largely consisted of an extended all-star tribute concert.
The night ended with a packed stage performing “September” with the entire audience on their feet and actor Tom Hanks leaping from his seat, arms waving, to lead his whole section in dancing.
The event will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 15.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.