Actor Morgan Freeman and singer Barbra Streisand were among the stars to receive awards for their contribution to US culture in Washington.
Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who, choreographer Twyla Tharp and singer George Jones also collected the annual Kennedy Centre honour.
Actor and director Clint Eastwood paid tribute to Freeman calling him "a great good luck charm".
The gala was attended by President George W Bush and his wife.
All the honourees were treated to surprise performances in their tributes.
In a video message, Queen Latifah said Streisand "threw out the rule book" to chart her own career.
"She took to the stage like butter on a bagel," she added.
Broadway star Idina Menzel sang Don't Rain on My Parade from Streisand's 1964 musical Funny Girl, Beyonce sang The Way We Were and R&B singer Ne-Yo grooved to Streisand's 1965 hit Lover, Come Back to Me.
Another set of stars paid tribute to The Who in front of a neon-lit Union Jack, including rock singer Rob Thomas who sang Baba O'Riley.
"The full impact of it is still sinking in, it feels a bit iconic," Pete Townshend said of the honour.
First Lady Laura Bush took the stage to salute George Jones, saying "there's no getting tired of a singer like him".
Country stars Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and Shelby Lynne gave Jones a tip of the hat with performances of the star's work.
For Tharp's presentation, actress Lily Tomlin said Tharp saw dance everywhere she looked: "This is a woman who saw the Beach Boys and made a ballet."
The honours, now in their 31st year, are awarded to recipients for their lifetime contribution to American culture through the performing arts - whether in dance, music, theatre, opera, film or television.
Tickets to the gala sell for as much as $4,000 (£2,700). Last year, the event raised $5m (£3.6m) to support the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The show will be broadcast in the US on 30 December.