If 2011 doesn't rank as the best time of Neil Diamond's 50-year career, it surely must be close.
Just consider the major awards the enduring, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter behind "Sweet Caroline," "Cracklin' Rosie," "I Am ... I Said," "Song Sung Blue" and "America" -- among many, many other hits -- has accrued over the past 12 months.
In March, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; in May, he was named a Billboard Icon at the annual Billboard Music Awards; and now, he is a recipient of arguably the highest American accolade given to any performer, the Kennedy Center Honors.
Taped at the start of the month, the 34th annual ceremony will be a traditional year-ending special for CBS on Tuesday, Dec. 27. Saluted as well during this year's event staged in Washington, D.C., are two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, saxophonist Sonny Rollins and Tony Award-winning Broadway star Barbara Cook ("The Music Man").
It's noteworthy that Diamond claims Caroline Kennedy, the host of the Honors in recent years, as the inspiration for the most "Sweet" of his hits. Prior to going to the nation's capital to join his fellow Kennedy Center honorees, as well as President and Mrs. Obama, he spoke for this article about receiving the medal previously bestowed on other singular talents from Fred Astaire and Henry Fonda in the late 1970s to Sir Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey last year.
Q: What's your general feeling about receiving the Kennedy Center Honors?
A: You know, it's a huge honor, but I don't want to let it go to my head. I'm going to have to work twice as hard to put on the kind of show my audience expects when I go out on tour next summer. I know who my boss is. I can win all the medals in the world, but I still have to come up with the goods onstage.
Q: How did you first find out about your being recognized with the Kennedy Center Honors?
A: My management got a letter, and at first I thought I was going to be asked to perform for somebody else being honored. Then I thought they got the wrong Neil Diamond. It became pretty clear, though, that they wanted to give me some kind of a medal for rock and roll. And I thought that was pretty amazing.
A: Rock has played an important part in the culture of this country for the last 50 or 60 years, and I think it's a good thing that it's being recognized.
Q: Had you ever met any of your fellow Kennedy Center honorees before?
A: No, I never had. I'm just very pleased about the whole thing. This has been one of those years that you read about in fairy tales, and it's exciting, but it really puts a lot of pressure on me when I go out and perform again ... or when I do anything. And I kind of like that. I work well under pressure.
Q: What do you think about watching biographies of yourself, such as the one that opens your segment of the Kennedy Center Honors?
A: I look forward to seeing what my life has been like! I'm too busy living it, really, to look at it close-up. I've been going at the speed of rock and roll, and you don't get too much time to sit and take in the view.
I'll tell you, it's gone by quickly. This is one of the few times when I have a chance to look at the work I've done and what I've been able to achieve and, even more importantly, to think about what I have to do in the future to earn this honor.
Q: Within the realm of music, your recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had to be special in its own way. How was that event for you?
A: That night was a lot of fun. I saw many people I knew and had worked with over the years, so it was like a reunion. I was completely jet-lagged because I had just flown in from Melbourne, Australia, so I'm not sure a lot of it registered. And it went pretty late.
Q: Your latest CD, "The Very Best of Neil Diamond -- The Original Studio Recordings," is the first to compile your hits from all the labels you've recorded for. How significant is that for you?
A: It's like meeting and greeting old friends again when I listen to it, and I love it. It's special to have all of this material together on the same disc. Each song sparks its own recollections, and I wrote in the album notes what I recall of the recording process for each and how it all came about. It was a trip down memory lane for me, very nostalgic, and I hope the people who hear it get that same feeling.
Q: You're planning another concert tour for June through September next year. How is that prospect for you?
A: It's always exciting, because it's always a little bit scary. You know you have to put something out there that's special and memorable, and now that I've been receiving all these honors for my work, I have to go out there and prove it.
When you start getting older, you start to realize that time is limited, and the time to do this tour is now. It's going to be my biggest show ever, wall-to-wall hits and then some, and it's just going to be the whole enchilada. We're doing it for the audience, and we want them to have a great time. That's the whole point of it.