The "Godfather of Soul" James Brown and country music star Loretta Lynn were among entertainers being honoured for their contributions to US culture.
James Brown said being honoured felt "good"
The pair were invited to a gala attended by President George Bush at the Kennedy Arts Center in Washington.
Also honoured were comedian and actress Carol Burnett, violinist Itzhak Perlman and film director Mike Nichols.
Mr Bush called the group an "interesting mix" bound by "superior performance" throughout their careers.
A host of star names, including Julie Andrews, Kim Cattrall, Anastasia and Reba McEntire, also paid tribute to the honourees in a series of speeches, sketches and musical numbers.
The Bush family were in attendance
Brown said he was excited at receiving the award, and said:"I feel good," a reference to one of his hit songs.
Hip hop star-turned-actor LL Cool J spoke about the influence Brown, 75, had on his career.
"He broke down mental and social barriers and made it possible for me, a black kid from Queens, to stand in front of presidents and say 'say it
loud, I'm black and I'm proud'," he told the audience.
Former President George Bush Sr was also on hand to praise the talents of Loretta Lynn, best known for her hit Coal Miner's Daughter.
"I feel very confident in speaking for the entire Bush family in expressing our love and our respect for this national treasure, Loretta," he said.
Carol Burnett starred in the movie Annie and hosted her own variety show
German-born director Mike Nichols has made such memorable films as The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Primary Colors.
"His name on a production signifies quality, intelligence and
high artistic standards," President Bush said.