When he was just 14, Grammy-winning soul singer/songwriter William Bell was hired to sing in a club on weekends.

"I realized I might make a little money," Bell says. "I got permission from my mom, who said as long as I was in church on Sunday, I could sing on Saturday night."

That was the beginning of a career that has lasted more than six decades and resulted in numerous awards. On March 25, Bell will bring his 11-piece band to Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum as part of the Savannah Music Festival.

"I was about 7 when I started singing in church," he says. "My mom sang in church.

"I wrote my first complete song at 14 and with my group, the Del Rios, cut a record. It was a tri-state hit and didn't go nationwide, but it got us a lot of attention.

"I was really doing it initially for the love of it," Bell says. "I didn't think of music as a career until I was 18 years of age."

That was when Bell was discovered by a record label.

"I wrote a song called 'You Don't Miss Your Water,'" he says. "I had a doo wop group and we did some backup for Stax Atlantic Records."

Liking what they heard, Stax execs signed Bell to a writing contract. Stax Records was the home of such legendary performers as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers.

Songwriting came naturally to Bell.

"It was just a normal occasion for me," he says. "I was the lone kid with my mom until I was 10, when my mom remarried and I had some siblings.

"Up until that time, I would write my ideas and frustrations down. I was always writing down poems and stuff like that.

"I started setting it to music when I was working at the Flamingo," Bell says. "I was an early beginner but a late bloomer, I guess."

Bell scored a U.S. Top 40 hit in 1976 with "Tryin' to Love Two."

He has written songs that have been covered by numerous performers.

With Booker T. Jones, Bell co-wrote "Born Under a Bad Sign," which was first recorded by Albert King and later made famous by Eric Clapton and Cream.

"It was a song I had started writing for myself," Bell says. "It was during the time of the hippie movement, during the '60s.

"I happened to be in the studio when Albert King had a recording session. He was short of material.

"I had one blues-oriented song which only had a bass line, a verse and a chorus," Bell says. "I sang it and Albert loved the idea and the song."

When Eric Clapton and Cream recorded the song, it became a hit.

"Back then, we really didn't know the significance of music," Bell says. "We were young kids who were coming up and having fun.

"We had a place to go at Stax to hone our craft and learn more about the music industry," he says. "It was a good time to be starting out. I had no idea this song would become an iconic blues song and the longevity it would have."

Among Bell's best memories of the early days is his first trip to Europe. He also fondly remembers going to New York City and playing the Apollo Theater.

"All my life, I heard about the Apollo Theater," he says. "It was always said if you could make it at the Apollo, you could make it anywhere.

"Eventually, every three or four months I was going back to the Apollo. New York embraced me.

"Later on in my career, it was a highlight to do a White House performance for President Obama," Bell says. "We've had quite a few highlights."

That includes winning awards. In addition to a Grammy Award, Bell was awarded the Rhythm & Blues Foundation's R&B Pioneer Award, the BMI Songwriters Award and the W.C. Handy Heritage Award, and he's been inducted into both the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.

"It's very gratifying to me," Bell says. "It's like a validation of my work.

"When you're doing it sometimes, you don't realize what you've accomplished," he says. "I love all my awards."

Bell kept busy over the years. After moving to Atlanta, he opened his own recording studio and founded the Wilbe label.

"I've got a label and a studio here in Atlanta with artists of my own who are writing and recording," Bell says. "I'm still old school.

"I like bodies in the studio exchanging ideas. I still like getting together and writing down songs with musicians."

In 2016, Bell re-activated the Stax Records label to release a new album, "This is Where I Live," his first major label album in over 30 years.

For this album, Bell was nominated for two Grammy awards: Best Americana Album (which he won) and Best Traditional R&B Performance for the track "The Three of Me."

"Management had asked me if I would do a project outside my label," Bell says. "My own label is in the Southern soul arena.

"Management said, 'We'd like to get you out there further.' I did a movie called 'Take Me to the River.' One of my songs, 'I Forgot to be a Lover,' was the focal point of that.

"Stax Concord picked up the track to that," Bell says. "After that was a success, they asked me to do a project."

It took about a year to get the project off the ground.

"I'm glad I did it," Bell says. "It was like going back to Stax, like going home. To get a Grammy is a wonderful feeling."

In Savannah, fans will hear Bell's hits, old and new.

"We do stuff from the old catalogue," he says. "I've been fortunate to have so many records out.

"We do major hits from the '60s, '70s and from the brand-new CD, also. I have a stellar band that's been with me about 15 years.

"We know each other well," Bell says. "They're like my extended family on the road. It's a total-package band and it's a wonderful show."

In the early years, Bell often played South Georgia and Savannah.

"It's been a long time since I've been to Savannah," he says. "It will be good to show people we're still standing and still doing it.

"Throughout my career, without my fans, there would be no William Bell," Bell says. "They've been loyal throughout the years. They've always been there for me."


When: 8 p.m. March 25

Where: Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, 41 MLK Jr. Blvd.

Cost: Sold out

Info: savannahmusicfestival.org