Obama salutes entertainers taking a Washington bow

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 in 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 said

in introducing Hoffman, 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.

Tiler Peck of the New York City Ballet, who performed in

"Other Dances," one of Makarova's signature roles, said she has

studied her idol's technique for years.

"This is a role she created," Peck said.

Despite the president's misgivings about his own speech, the

performance at the Kennedy Center navigated the transition from

refined ballet to gritty blues music when the spotlight turned

to Guy, a sharecropper's son who made his first instrument with

wire scrounged from around 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

songstress was often the warm-up act for Guy.

George "Buddy" 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 came back in the finger-rattling 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

sitting 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."

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

(Reporting By Patrick Rucker and Mark Felsenthal)