Gary Susman
August 06, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Kennedy Center Honors are such a prestigious award, recognizing lifetime achievement in the performing arts, that in their 26-year history, only one recipient has ever turned down the honor: Paul McCartney, who said he couldn’t attend last year’s ceremony because of a family wedding. (Paul Simon got the honor in his place.) This year, the trustees were expected to invite McCartney back, but they did not. Instead, leading the list is a man who never seems to miss an engagement, the hardest-working man in show business, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

”Each year, the trustees start fresh, and this is what they chose,” said ceremony producer George Stevens Jr., explaining this year’s slate to USA Today. For his part, Brown was certainly grateful. ”I thank God. I thank all the people who’ve been with me on this long journey. If it hadn’t been for music, I wouldn’t have had a chance.”

Brown and the rest of this year’s honorees all overcame childhoods filled with poverty or trauma to reach the top of their professions. The other winners this year are TV sketch comedy queen Carol Burnett, country legend Loretta Lynn, comedian-turned-director Mike Nichols, and violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman. The winners will meet President Bush and attend the gala at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 7; the ceremony will be taped for broadcast later in the month on CBS.

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