A country-singing cardiologist
Cardiologist Cleve Francis tries to make it as a country singer.
In the early 1990s, Cleve Francis left his thriving cardiology group in Virginia to move to Nashville and chase a career as a black, middle-age singer in the overwhelmingly white world of country music. Despite making Francis a media sensation, the gambit was a commercial failure. Now he sees 100 patients every week at Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates, the practice he opened -- also somewhat implausibly -- three decades ago.
"I'll go to my grave believing that I had everything I needed to succeed [in Nashville]. 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," Francis says.
Francis had been singing since he was a kid in Jennings, La. "I was the oldest, so I spent a lot of time entertaining myself, sitting in the backyard with a guitar and my music," Francis says.
Cleve Francis onstage at the Birchmere with cellist David Bendahan, percussionist Tony Duncanson and guitarist John Georgiou.
Francis was the first in his family to go to college. He figured he'd become a teacher after graduation but switched his focus to medicine after visiting Southern University's infirmary, where he was examined by a black doctor -- the first one he'd ever seen.
Francis consults with a patient at his cardiology practice in Falls Church that he started in 1978 because, he says, "nobody was hiring black doctors," when he finished his medical residency.
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. But he never really broke through to the big time.
Francis at a 1995 concert in Rockville. "I didn't get to be a Garth Brooks or Darius Rucker. I've accepted it," he says.
Francis says he plans to retire from his medical practice in five years. Whether that means a return to country music or not remains to be seen.
Listen to the doctor (Post Magazine, March 14, 2010)
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