UPDATE 1-Obama salutes entertainers at Kennedy Center Honors

(Adds quotes, detail)

WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Music legend Led Zeppelin was

recognized on Sunday alongside entertainers from stage and

screen for their contributions to the arts and American culture

at the Kennedy Center Honors, lifetime achievement awards for

performing artists.

The eclectic tribute in Washington, alternated between

solemn veneration and lighthearted roasting of honorees Academy

Award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman, wisecracking late-night talk

show host David Letterman, blues guitar icon Buddy Guy,

ballerina Natalia Makarova and Led Zeppelin.

"I worked with the speechwriters - there is no smooth

transition from ballet to Led Zeppelin," President Barack Obama

deadpanned while introducing the honorees at a ceremony in the

White House East Room.

Friends, contemporaries and a new generation of artists

influenced by the honorees took the stage in tribute.

"Dustin Hoffman is a pain the ass," actor Robert DeNiro, a

former honoree, said in introducing the infamously perfectionist

star of such celebrated films as "The Graduate" and "Tootsie."

"And he inspired me to be a bit of a pain in the ass too,"

DeNiro said with a big smile.

At a weekend dinner for the winners at the State Department,

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that the performing

arts often requires a touch of diplomacy as she toasted

Makarova, a dance icon in the former Soviet Union when she

defected in 1970.

Makarova, the pride of her national ballet program, said she

obeyed an impulse for creative freedom when she sought asylum

while in London for a performance.

"It's most incredible because it looks like I lived two

lives," the artist told reporters before the event. "I've come a

long way, baby, no? That's the way someone said it for me."

The lightest moments came in the tribute to variety show

host David Letterman. Several performers said his oddball

program was a worthy successor to "The Tonight Show Starring

Johnny Carson," which was the standard bearer for late-night

shows from the 1960s through the early 1990s.

Comedian Tina Fey, honored with the Kennedy Center's Mark

Twain Prize for American Humor in 2010, marveled at Letterman's

ability to goad and humble his celebrity guests.

"David Letterman is a professor emeritus at the 'Here's Some

More Rope Institute,'" she joked.

Letterman, who joked earlier in the weekend that he was

going to fund an investigation to determine how he was given the

honor, was at a loss for words on the red carpet.

"I was full of trepidation, but now I am full of nothing but

gratitude," he said. "I don't believe this, but it's been nice

for my family."

Despite the president's misgivings about his own speech,

performances at the Kennedy Center easily transitioned from

precision dance tributes for Makarova to gritty blues music when

the spotlight turned to Guy, a sharecropper's son who made his

first instrument with wire scrounged from his family's home in

rural Louisiana.

"He's one of the most idiosyncratic and passionate blues

greats, and there are not many left of that original

generation," said Bonnie Raitt, who as an 18-year-old blues

singer was often the warm-up act for Guy.

Raitt led an ensemble tribute that included singer Tracy

Chapman and guitarist Jeff Beck.

Guy, 76, was a pioneer in the Chicago blues style that

pushed the sound of electrically amped guitar to the forefront

of the music.

"You mastered the soul of gut bucket," actor Morgan Freeman

told the Kennedy Center audience. "You made a bridge from roots

to rock 'n roll."

In a toast on Saturday night, former President Bill Clinton

talked of Guy's impoverished upbringing and how he improvised a

guitar from the strands of a porch screen, paint can and his

mother's hair pins.

"In Buddy's immortal phrase, the blues is 'Something you

play because you have it. And when you play it, you lose it.'"

It was a version of the blues that drifted over the Atlantic

to Britain and echoed back in the heart-pounding rock sound of

Led Zeppelin.

Jimmy Page, 68, was the guitar impresario who anchored the

compositions with vocalist Robert Plant, 64, howling and

screeching out the soul. Bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones,

66, rounded out the band with drummer John Bonham, who died in

1980.

The incongruity of the famously hard-partying rock stars in

black tie under chandeliers at a White House ceremony was not

lost on Obama.

"Of course, these guys also redefined the rock and roll

lifestyle," the president said, to laughter and sheepish looks

from the band members.

"So it's fitting that we're doing this in a room with

windows that are about three inches thick - and Secret Service

all around," Obama said. "So, guys, just settle down."

On stage Sunday night, Nancy and Ann Wilson of the rock band

Heart, belted out Zeppelin's emblematic "Stairway to Heaven" to

close out the show.

The gala will be aired on CBS television on Dec. 26.

(Reporting By Patrick Rucker and Mark Felsenthal)