Listen to the Doctor: Cleve Francis, cardiologist and country singer

Cardiologist Cleve Francis tries to make it as a country singer.

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By J. Freedom du Lac
Sunday, March 14, 2010

The doctor is in the dressing room. He is pacing in his black Justin brand western boots. He is pulling on the sleeve of his pinstriped, single-breasted, four-button Calvin Klein blazer. He is sipping merlot out of a plastic tumbler to take the edge off.

"I'm out of character," he says, sounding somewhat distressed. "I have to transform myself from Dr. Cleve Francis to singer Cleve Francis."

Swig.

On the marquee outside the Birchmere, the storied music hall in Alexandria, he is announced simply as "Cleve Francis." There is no differentiation between the cardiologist and the entertainer, which is just as well. "There's some life-and-death stuff here," Francis says. "There are a lot of patients in that room, and I want to preserve that dignity."

There is nothing inherently undignified or untoward about a cardiologist who sings, of course. But there are certain things that Dr. Cleve Francis will not do when he becomes singer Cleve Francis. "I'm not going to be jumping and grinding," he says. He laughs.

Francis, who will turn 65 next month, is a genteel singer of country and pop songs. He favors vintage ballads. The idea of him "jumping and grinding" would be jarring, even if he weren't in the business of saving lives. "I have fun out there," he says, "but not like that."

It's 7:30 on a Saturday night, and the band is assembling onstage. The crowd of 408 (92 short of a sellout) is buzzing. Francis is still pacing backstage, his tuxedo pants whooshing in time. He begins to hum, then stops and exhales. Suddenly, he shoots through the stage door as if there's a code blue.

The band plays the chugging beat and opening chords of "Gentle on My Mind." Francis begins to croon the old vagabond anthem in an easy, emotive voice. The audience whoops. "He can really sing!" a blue-haired woman sitting in front of the stage whisper-shouts to her husband.

Never having heard her cardiologist sing before, she is incredulous. Francis gets that a lot, for there is something improbable about a physician who can jump onstage in front of an audience and put on a convincing, winning concert, mostly by producing a sweet, soothing vocal sound that echoes James Taylor or maybe Bill Withers.

Then again, Francis has always been about improbabilities; in the early 1990s, he left his thriving cardiology group in Northern Virginia to move to Nashville and chase a career as a black, middle-age singer in the overwhelmingly white world of country music, just as the genre was in the midst of a major youth movement. Who does that?

Despite making Francis a media sensation, the gambit was a commercial failure. Which is why he's back to seeing 100 patients every week at Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates, the practice he opened -- also somewhat implausibly -- three decades ago.

Francis is a musical hobbyist now, like just about anybody else who works long hours and then scratches a creative itch as a weekend warrior. He happens to be good enough that people pay to see him when he performs once or twice every year, including an annual gig at the Birchmere. The next one will be April 3. Francis began working on the set list for the lone concert (thus far) on his 2010 calendar well before Super Bowl Sunday. Band rehearsals began in late February. By showtime, he will have rehearsed his vocal parts almost every night for more than six weeks.


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