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

By J. Freedom du Lac
Sunday, March 14, 2010; W20

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.

"You never know where it might lead. Who knows, somebody might see the performance, and next thing you know, they'll be asking me to perform somewhere else." Old dreams die hard.

***

After the show -- two generous sets, plus an encore -- Dr. Cleve Francis walks straight out of the performance hall and into the Birchmere lobby, where his two lives converge at the autograph table.

A woman hobbles up to Francis and leans on her cane. "You were wonderful!" she says. "I had to come see you; you gave me my stress test before I had knee surgery."

Francis asks how she's getting along. "I'm still going!" she says. He smiles.

"Do you mind taking a picture with us?" says a young fan with a parent on either arm. "You saved my dad's life." Francis obliges, putting an arm around the man, who whispers something into his physician's ear before ambling into the night.

A couple asks Francis to sign a CD of his self-released live album, "Story Time," which was recorded during an earlier Birchmere concert. A man inching up the line in a walker can't believe it. "You want his autograph? I get it on a prescription every three weeks," he says. Everybody laughs.

***

On a bookshelf in Francis's office in Alexandria, there's a red squeeze toy in the iconic shape of a heart, along with a plastic model heart and a small, focused library: "Hematology," "Profiles in Cardiology," "The Heart," "Mayo Clinic Cardiology Review."

Hanging on a wall is a reminder of the board-certified cardiologist's other life: a framed display containing CD copies of the three albums and seven singles Francis recorded and released in Nashville in the early '90s. He never quite managed to become country music's second black star, following the trailblazing Charley Pride, but Francis still has a spot in history as the only African American singer/cardiologist ever to have placed a track on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

Francis had been singing since he was a kid in Jennings, La., where music was pervasive. His mother, Mary, sang in the choir at her Baptist church; neighborhood folks played blues, gospel and zydeco on their guitars, banjos and harmonicas; and Mahalia Jackson and Hank Williams songs spilled out of the radio.

"I was the oldest, so I spent a lot of time entertaining myself, sitting in the back yard with a guitar and my music," Francis says. When he was 8, Francis fashioned a guitar out of an old King Edward cigar box and wire he'd taken from a window screen. His mother saw the contraption and secretly, if slowly, began to set aside money for a $25 Sears Silvertone guitar.

Francis was born in the segregated South to a single, teenage mother who had been raised by the descendant of slaves. His birthplace was Jennings, a small city along Interstate 10 in Jefferson Davis, the southwestern Louisiana parish that took its name from the former president of the Confederacy. A railroad track slicing through the city demarcated the black and white parts of Jennings.

It was uncommon for black kids from Jennings to go to college in the 1950s and early 1960s, Francis says, unless they were the children of teachers or school officials. None of Francis's relatives had pursued a higher education; his mother, who cleaned homes, had dropped out of school after the fifth grade. (His father had moved to Michigan when Mary Francis decided to marry another man.) But Francis secured a National Defense Student Loan and enrolled at Southern University, arriving at the all-black campus in Baton Rouge shortly after the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s epochal "I Had a Dream" speech. He also began to play music more seriously, having been encouraged by a music professor, Huel Perkins, who even bought the student a new guitar.

Francis figured he'd become a teacher after college but switched his focus after visiting Southern's infirmary, where he was examined by a black doctor -- the first one he'd ever seen. He studied premedical biology and applied to a dozen medical schools, from Harvard to Johns Hopkins. He was rejected by all of them because, he says, "nobody was accepting black students."

He applied for graduate school at the College of William & Mary after seeing a postcard for the college on a campus bulletin board. He was one of the few black students at the Williamsburg school; instead of assimilating, he grew an Afro, wore a dashiki and performed Richie Havens songs. He also cut a 45, which was funded by some William & Mary professors who later helped pay for a full album, "The Willow Tree," which featured several songs written by Francis (including the title track), as well as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Beatles covers.

Then came the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.

"My first day at MCV, they'd put us in touch with our roommates. I'm writing this guy, he's writing back, and he has no idea I'm black. I drive up to the dormitory in my VW Beetle, walked in, said: 'Hey, man, good to see you. I'm going to go down and get my stuff out of my car.' When I got back, the room was empty. This guy took all his [expletive] and left. You know what my reaction was? I pulled the two beds together. I had two lamps, two beds, two desks and a big bed." Francis laughs.

At MCV, as at William & Mary, Francis moonlighted as a musician, performing folk and country songs in coffeehouses and bars. "Guys would get jobs at the hospital, drawing blood for the summer, and me, I was out singing at this redneck country bar on Route 17, the only black person in there," he says.

One day at medical school, Francis was walking the halls when a code blue was called. He was fascinated by the cardiologist who, he says, seemed to be "seeing things in slow motion," finding clarity amid the confusion and chaos. Francis decided he'd found his path.

After MCV, Francis was accepted at George Washington University Hospital for his internship, residency and fellowship, but he also had a side gig performing at local venues. Then came his move into the working world -- and another dose of reality. "Nobody was hiring black doctors," he says. "Everybody else at GW is getting these fancy jobs, but not me. I literally cried. After all this, studying at William & Mary, training at the Medical College of Virginia, going to GW, I get out, and it's still about race?"

Francis married a physical therapist in 1977 (they divorced eight years later) and decided to start his own practice in 1978. It wasn't long before business was booming. "They didn't have a cardiologist down here," Cleve explained. "People were dying, being treated by non-cardiologists. ... I had so many patients say, 'Dr. Francis -- the black guy, the one with the beard -- that's who I want to see.' "

In 1981, after being on call every day for two years, Francis added his first partner. By 1990, he had four. And by 1992, he was in Nashville, chasing his crazy dream of country stardom.

***

The stage at the Birchmere is 16 feet deep and 28 feet across. It's sufficient space for most of the acts that perform at the concert hall, but it barely fits the band that Francis has brought with him for his 2009 date. It's an unwieldy group of 13 singers and musicians that Francis has collected over the years, sometimes picking up players on his rounds or during appointments.

One of the guitarists is the son of a patient at Mount Vernon Cardiology. There's a cellist whose mother is a nurse at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. There are two percussionists, one of whom -- Larry Boddie -- worked as a respiratory therapist at the hospital. Boddie joined the group, playing with Francis for several years until he suffered a stroke in 2007. At that point, the singer who Boddie had been accompanying onstage became his physician.

"Cleve been taking real good care of me," he says. "I couldn't use my left arm, and my leg was messed up. But I'm using my left arm again, and I can still keep that rhythm."

Francis nods. "We have a real interesting band," he says.

And then he's off to chat with his then-fiancee, Hardeep Kaur, a quality control consultant at Inova Mount Vernon. (The couple married in May, in a private backyard ceremony officiated by a retired pastor whose life Francis had helped to save five years earlier. The newlyweds danced to "You've Got Me Now" and "We Fell in Love Anyway," two songs from Francis's Capitol Nashville Records/Liberty Records catalogue.)

Even as his cardiology practice grew, Francis continued to perform locally -- most frequently at the Singers Studio, a folk club in Georgetown. He sang in a duo with guitarist Billy Pierce and with a band, Heavy Country, whose name was somewhat misleading, as Francis added plenty of pop, soul and folk covers and originals to the group's repertoire. (Sam Cooke and Harry Chapin were particular favorites.)

One day in 1989, while on call at Inova Mount Vernon, Francis treated a patient whose brother was in the music business. As these things happen, his tape made its way to Jack Gale, a longtime radio disc jockey and station owner who had produced several fading country stars for his independent label, Playback Records.

Gale had an idea for Francis: Let's make a country album, with steel guitars, background singers and the rest of it. One of the songs he pitched was "Love Light," which had been the B-side to Glen Campbell's crossover country smash, "Rhinestone Cowboy."

Francis was in. The result was "Last Call for Love," a 10-track cassette recorded with session musicians in Nashville.

"I was mostly doing folk and gospel and a little bit of country, and then it switched," he says. "That was a country album, man. I got pulled in."

Early buzz for the independently released project was strong, and so Francis decided to take a shot at music's big time: With Playback's promotional budget limited, the singing doctor spent $25,000 of his own money to produce a high-quality video for "Love Light."

Though Francis wasn't signed to one of the big Music Row labels, "Love Light" still got in heavy rotation on the Country Music Television cable network. That feat grabbed the attention of the head of Capitol Records Nashville, who offered Francis a three-album contract that would make him one of the first black country artists to secure a major-label deal, after Charley Pride and lesser-known singers Stoney Edwards and Big Al Downing.

Francis pulled out of his medical practice in 1992, moved to Nashville and landed on Billboard's country chart four times over the next two years, with "Love Light," "You Do My Heart Good," "How Can I Hold You" and "Walkin'," each of which was a minor hit.

"What I'd like to think is that the dream chased me," he says.

But Francis never truly broke through. His singles didn't generate much airplay on country radio, which might have been a function of the material itself: "The best songwriters weren't going to gamble on me; they were giving their best stuff to other singers." And he couldn't get himself booked onto a major tour, the kind that might build a fan base. Two albums into his three-album deal, his music career was dead.

"He certainly could sing, but there were so many other factors," says Robert K. Oermann, a veteran Nashville author and journalist who writes a column about the genre for the trade publication Music Row. "My recollection is that he was no spring chicken when he got here; he was a little old to be trying to break into country music when country was skewing young.

"And there was really just that one song that was any good, 'Love Light.' Everything else was just mediocre, and if you don't have the songs in country music, you're not going anywhere. I wonder, also, if the radio guys perceived him as being too intelligent for the format because he was a doctor."

And race? "I would think that being 47 years old, not having the songs and being a doctor would count as bigger strikes than being black," Oermann says. "Who's to say which one of those factors it was or whether it was all of them. But he was not in the right place at the right time, obviously."

Francis made the third album, anyway, then returned to the cardiology practice that he'd thought he might have left for good.

But Francis is still vexed by what went wrong in Nashville.

"I'll go to my grave believing that I had everything I needed to succeed. I wasn't a shoo-in, but I thought I would make it. But race was the elephant in the room. I was a black guy doing it at a time when black and white mattered." He notes that he attended a country awards ceremony in Southern California on April 30, 1992 -- the day after the Rodney King riots erupted in Los Angeles. The air was thick with racial tension. "The booking agent told me that he tried to get me a job at one [honky-tonk], and the guy said, 'I will not have this nigger in here.' That's what I was dealing with. It was a litmus of the racial ills of this country, going into a genre that was basically segregated. ... I'm not angry with these people in Nashville. I can't live my whole life angry. I just don't think they were ready for me."

But in 2008, the country music establishment embraced a notable new member: Darius Rucker, who became the first African American to score a Top 20 country single in 20 years, with "Don't Think I Don't Think About It." The bittersweet ballad eventually reached No. 1, marking the first time a black artist had done that since Pride had released the last of his 29 chart-toppers in 1983. Rucker -- the former Hootie & The Blowfish singer who records for Francis's old label, has since had two more country chart toppers.

"I do think it's a turning point," says Francis, who covered "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" at the Birchmere. "I call it generational permission; there's a new generation that's now allowing this to happen, kind of like with Obama. But will there be anybody else besides Darius? What happens now? That's what I want to see."

***

Late one afternoon, Francis is ducking in and out of his office in Springfield in between patient visits. He's brought a portable DVD player and a bunch of recordings of his mid-'90s TV appearances. He sounds alternately giddy and wistful as he sets them up and narrates them.

Here he is with Florence Henderson, making barbecue chicken and singing "Send in the Clowns" with the former "Brady Bunch" matriarch. There he is on the Nashville Network, going toe-to-toe with the punchy Ralph Emery. There's a CBS feature and footage from a performance at which Francis has the crowd mesmerized.

He sighs.

"It's interesting what people accept as success," Francis says. "If the reference point is Jennings, La., then I'm all right. I succeeded in finishing high school and went to college, and once you do that, you're in, like, the 99th percentile, maybe 99.9. But if the reference point is the world, then there's a whole lot of people that have succeeded more.

"The music thing? You're looking at a guy with a $25 Sears guitar who signed to Capitol Records. I was classified as a professional. I think I succeeded in terms of that. But it's all relative. I didn't get to be a Garth Brooks or Darius Rucker. I've accepted it."

He's over it.

He's not over it.

He occasionally refers to what's now his hobby as "this music career."

He's pondered recording new albums and booking more shows. He'd love to perform on the big summer stage at Wolf Trap, even as an opening act. Maybe he should write some topical new songs, along the lines of "Martin," his 1983 tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Maybe there's a concert DVD to be recorded.

He wonders what will happen when this article comes out, whether it will bring closure -- or, maybe, open new doors.

He knows this, though: Five more years practicing medicine, and he's going to retire. Then what? Will the ballad of Cleve Francis keep on playing?

J. Freedom du Lac is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at dulacj@washpost.com.

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