Conversations: Cleve Francis Followed His Heart on a Country Path and Back Again
Cleve Francis is almost certainly the only African American country singer/cardiologist ever to have charted on Billboard. He did it four times in the early 1990s, with "Love Light," "You Do My Heart Good," "How Can I Hold You" and "Walkin'," each of which was a minor hit on the Hot Country Songs chart. Francis, who gave up his country-stardom dreams 15 years ago and returned to Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates, the Northern Virginia practice he'd founded in 1978, will perform at the Birchmere on April 11.
-- J. Freedom du Lac
Last October, when Darius Rucker became the first African American to score a number-one country single in 25 years, you told me that you weren't sure much had really changed in terms of racial attitudes in country music. But now that he's done it again, you've changed your mind?
I think it's a turning point or sea change. You look at Charley Pride having all those number ones and then years go by and nobody's able to do it. . . . But I think we've reached the point that there's generational permission; there's a new generation that's now allowing this to happen.
Darius told me last November that a year earlier, he'd told his son: "You can be anything you want except president or a country singer." But that he couldn't say that anymore.
[Laughs.] That's true! He had every reason to believe that up until now. The tragedy for me and some of the other blacks who were singing country is that we're from the country. I grew up in Jennings, Louisiana, around country, blues, zydeco. But people were saying: "Why are you singing this music?" They'd attach a racial note to it.
You still perform occasionally, but do you find yourself having to ignore or fend off the urge to spend more time on music?
My performing skills are still there, where I could probably make a living doing it if I ever got back to it. I don't think I would ever go back on the road. But I have a couple more goals. I always wanted to play Wolf Trap. Maybe if Darius plays there, he'd have me open for him. [Laughs.] . . . I also want to play the White House, which might be a possibility now. I'd love to do that as a cultural thing.