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KOOL AND THE GANG PASS THE TEST OF TIME

It started with some backstage riffing at the American Music Awards, became the theme song when the American hostages returned from Iran in 1981 and has been in heavy rotation at wedding receptions ever since.

"Celebration" is more than Kool and the Gang's best-known hit. It's one of those rare songs that becomes a pop-culture anthem, and that's a point of pride with lead singer James "J.T." Taylor."When I played the rough track for my mother," Taylor recalls, "she said, `This is a song you're going to sing for the rest of your life.' There's an emotional attachment people have to it. No matter what, we have to end our show with it. We've tried putting it at the front or somewhere in the middle, but then there's always an anticlimax.

"It's flattering to hear bands play it everywhere we go. We may recut a new version of it this year."

Taylor, 42, the smooth tenor behind Kool and the Gang's enormous chart success of the '80s, is part of the reconstituted group. Five original members are still with the nine-man band, including Robert "Kool" Bell.

Taylor was in the band for 10 years (1978-88) before pursuing a solo career. Some 1 1/2 years ago, he hooked up with Robert Bell's brother, Ronald, while working on an album, and that led to a Kool album, "State of Affairs."

"It's a collage of the '70s, '80s and '90s and represents our evolution as musicians," Taylor says. "It's new, but reminiscent."