Led Zeppelin, Dustin Hoffman and David Letterman were among seven performers honored for their lifetime contribution to US culture at a glittering awards ceremony late Sunday that is the climax of Washington's social calendar.
This years's honorees of Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts also included blues musician Buddy Guy and Russian-born ballerina Natalia Makarova.
While Led Zeppelin were honored as a band, keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page, and singer Robert Plant each received their medallions.
"With their extraordinary talent, creativity and tenacity, the seven 2012 Kennedy Center honorees have contributed significantly to the cultural life of our nation and the world," said Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein.
The annual honors gala, which has become the highlight of the Washington cultural year, was attended by President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and other Washington and Hollywood dignitaries.
Earlier, the honorees were received at the White House by the president and first lady, who praised the center's tradition of providing support to leading cultural figures around the world.
In his remarks, Obama called it "a remarkable evening."
"And it speaks to something that has always made this country great -- the idea that here in America, more than any other place on Earth, we are free to follow our own passions, explore our own gifts, wherever they may lead us," he said. "And people from all around the world come here to make sure that they too can provide us the incredible gifts that they have."
He told the story of Buddy Guy, who grew up in a poor sharecropper family in Louisiana and made his first guitar out of wires from a window screen.
The president went on to recall that when Dustin Hoffman auditioned for a part in "The Graduate", a crew member handed him a subway token on his way out, saying, "here, kid, you're gonna need this."
But Dustin, Obama pointed out, ended up getting the role and "it launched one of the greatest movie careers of his generation, of any generation."
The president noted that when Natalia Makarova defected from the Soviet Union in 1970, her name was excised from Soviet textbooks and her countrymen were forced to rely on underground channels "to follow the rise of one of the most accomplished ballerinas in the world."
Obama said the the British rock group Led Zeppelin "redefined the rock and roll lifestyle."
"And tonight we honor Led Zeppelin for making us all feel young, and for showing us that some guys who are not completely youthful can still rock," he added.
Each of the honorees, the president pointed out, has touched the lives of practically all Americans
"Maybe they didn't lead us to become performers ourselves," said Obama. "But maybe they inspired us to see things in a new way, to hear things differently, to discover something within us or to appreciate how much beauty there is in the world. It's that unique power that makes the arts so important."
Past honors recipients, as well as members of the Kennedy Center's national artists committee, recommended the 2012 honorees.
At the ceremony at the Kennedy Center, actor Morgan Freeman paid tribute to Buddy Guy as a musician who served as an inspiration to Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and the Rolling Stones.
World-famous guitarist Eric Clapton called Guy "the best guitar player alive."
"I don't know, there are so many great players," Buddy Guy told AFP. "I just try to be the best until the best comes around."
Actors Glenn Close, Naomi Watts, Alec Baldwin and Jack Black were among the celebrities in attendance.
Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the slain US president John F. Kennedy, in her remarks praised "the richness and diversity of performing arts."