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Earth Wind & Fire rekindled

Today's edge-walkers are tomorrow's mainstreamers. That's truer in entertainment than anywhere else.

Some, however, have a hard time imagining today's pop music ever gaining broad appeal. An oldies station that plays Limp Bizkit and the Wu-Tang? Jay-Z in a brokerage firm ad? Won't happen, right?

Talk to Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White before you answer. The six-time, Grammy-winning, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame band has sold more than 30-million records, provided the soundtrack to countless wedding dances, and performed at the closing ceremonies at this year's Winter Olympics.

Yet there was once a time when they were considered, well, threatening.

In the early '70s, mainstream radio widgets decided the lyrics to the song Mighty Mighty _ "We are people of the mighty mighty people of the sun/in our heart lies all the answers to the truth you can't run from" _ were too incendiary to be played on the air.

"I remember when the song first came out," said White, whose band will appear Sunday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. "Radio heard the lyrics and thought we were talking about separatism and black radicalism. So that song couldn't get played on the radio."

Today, that thought seems ludicrous, especially considering that Earth Wind & Fire's Afro-conscious/universalist spirituality was and is the very essence of inclusion. An EWF concert, often filled with hand-holding and audience-participation chants, is proof. (After a 1995 concert in Tampa, the crowd was still chanting as it filed into the street.)

The old concerts hold up just as well as the newer ones. On April 23, Columbia Legacy records is releasing That's the Way of the World Alive in 75 a selection of previously unreleased live recordings (complementing 1975's largely live Gratitude album). And with a generation of contemporary soul artists (Alicia Keys, D'Angelo, et al) drawing on the group for inspiration, EWF sounds more contemporary than ever.

The band members are busier than ever, too, working on the 23rd EWF album. They've already recorded two new songs for the Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, due out in August. Lead singer Philip Bailey, with that glass-shattering falsetto, has released his ninth solo album, Soul On Jazz on Telarc records.

The band's jazz roots were obvious in its first two albums in the early 1970s. Verdine White was a classically trained bassist, and his brother, EWF founder Maurice White (who records, but doesn't tour with the group) was a graduate of the Chicago Conservatory of Music who played on sessions for Chess Records.

Soon they were churning out message tunes such as Head to the Sky, preaching themes of personal uplift and togetherness, including references to Egyptology and various spiritual disciplines.

"We started going for the middle, playing more to the mainstream, after that," White said.

EWF's pop phase produced some some of the most enduring standards of the '70s: That's the Way of the World, Getaway, Shining Star, Reasons, Can't Hide Love.

That staying power, combined with the songs' uplifting messages, help explain why the group's music has been even more warmly received in the past six months.

"I think our music has been part of the healing process, after 9/11," White said. "We speak messages that come from a high place of truth. And everybody is on the same page with that."