From left: musician Al Green, ballerina Patricia McBride
An Englishman in New York was the toast of Washington as British pop star Sting was feted with fellow recipients of this year's Kennedy Center Honors.
He took time off from his Broadway show "The Last Ship" to join Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, 1970s soul man Al Green, comedienne Lily Tomlin and ballerina Patricia McBride at a gala ceremony in the US capital.
"I feel very happy in my trophy," Sting, 63, told AFP on the red carpet going into the soiree, pointing to the rainbow-colored laurel draped around his neck.
"I'm not sure when I'll wear it again, but I think I look rather fetching in it," he quipped.
"It's still pretty overwhelming. I'm dealing with it quite well."
- Top cultural honor -
Bestowed by the nation's premier performing arts institute, the Kennedy Center Honors are regarded as the highest recognition of cultural achievement in the United States.
This year's honorees were all smiles and laughter as they took their balcony places alongside President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle in the Kennedy Center's vast opera house.
First to be honored was Green, 68, with funk band Earth, Wind and Fire putting the black-tie crowd in a soul-swinging groove, Usher crooning "Let's Stay Together" and a huge chorus backing Mavis Staples and Sam Moore on "Take Me To The River."
Earlier, on the red carpet, Green -- an ordained pastor in Memphis, Tennessee who branched out into gospel music in the 1980s -- called the honor another milestone in a rich career that is still unfolding.
"They give me all these great accolades and then they tell you, 'Alright, go out and earn it'," he said. "So we gotta keep writing and keep making songs."
"Soul music is alive and well. You'll never get rid of soul music. It's in here," added Green, playfully poking the heart of an AFP reporter before breaking into a few lines of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long."
TV satirist Stephen Colbert, making his debut as a Kennedy Center Honors emcee, comically dubbed the event "the only awards ceremony in America that does not feature Taylor Swift."
The three-hour gala is to be telecast in the United States on the CBS network December 30.
Steven Spielberg, a 2006 honoree who directed 58-year-old Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan," saluted the two-time Oscar winner as an actor "who mines humor like gold and then spreads the wealth."
- 'Essence of America' -
"Tom is the essence of America -- especially when he gained 50 pounds for a role," added comedian Martin Short, referring to Hanks' portly character in "Cast Away."
Canadian-born Short led an unabashedly patriotic American tribute to Hanks inspired by the 1942 film musical "Yankee Doodle Dandy," complete with military trumpeters marching down the aisles.
Jane Fonda, who co-starred with Tomlin in "9 to 5," saluted the pioneering comedienne alongside Jane Lynch from "Glee," Kate McKinnon of "Saturday Night Live" and country singer Reba McEntire.
"You've turned plain loveable oddballs into a viable career option," McKinnon, 30, said from the stage to 75-year-old Tomlin, best known for her vast repertoire of satirical sketch characters.
Young ballet stars like Tiler Peck, Misty Copeland and Jared Angle took to the stage in honor of McBride, 72, a star of the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine.
"It's the greatest award a dancer can receive," said McBride -- who teaches dance in North Carolina after retiring in 1989 -- of her Kennedy laurel prior to the gala.
Lady Gaga kicked off the tribute to Sting, taking to the piano for a powerful cover of "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You" that was followed by an equally potent version of "I Hung My Head" by 2009 honoree Bruce Springsteen.
It fell on a current-day chart-topper, Bruno Mars, to bring the night to a close, and the crowd to its feet, with a medley of hits from Sting's 1980s new wave band The Police, including "Roxanne" and "Message in a Bottle."