Cleve Francis has his fans and his patients. Often the two overlap. An Alexandria cardiologist and director of cardiac rehabilitation at Mount Vernon Hospital, Francis also happens to be an accomplished singer-songwriter. On Saturday he'll be giving a concert at Mount Vernon High School to raise funds for patients whose rehabilitation costs are not covered by medical insurance.
"I do walk a thin line," Francis says of his unusual duality. "I try to put myself in my patients' position. They see me as half doctor, half musician. When a guy ends up in the emergency room, he wants to make sure the right guy shows up."
A few years ago, when Francis had not yet made the major commitment that has resulted in a new, Nashville-recorded album, "Timeless," he had certain fears. "Whether people would accept me or not; whether people would turn away from me as a physician. But the reality of cardiology taught me that life is short and that what I owe to people is to be well-trained, to give them adequate coverage when I'm not available . . .
"My own life, the art in me -- which made me who I am -- I just couldn't let that die."
The singing, Francis says, is "something I've been carrying inside my heart for 20 years."
He first started performing in a family gospel group and in high school bands, and continued at Southern University in his native Louisiana. While getting his master's degree in biology at William and Mary, "I played the guitar to eat. My roommate and I were on graduate assistantships, and we played at clubs and bars for money to support ourselves."
In 1969, a number of those clubs pooled some money and persuaded Francis to make his first album, "Follow Me." A collection of what he called "soul folk," it sold 2,000 copies.
Later, at the Medical College of Virginia, while other students took summer jobs in hospitals, Francis went on the road, playing Holiday Inns and Ramadas, "where I made enough to buy books and equipment, even a small Volkswagen. I never stopped, no matter how tough things got."
If Francis' musical career has its elements of struggle, that's even truer for his medical education.
He is one of only 100 black cardiologists in the United States, and when he first came out of Southern he was turned down by 12 medical schools. "They didn't know what to do with a black student from an all-black school -- what did that mean? So I went on to graduate school. After that I found I could get back into medical school."
A similar pattern of exclusion was taking place in at least one corner of the music world, he adds.
"I always felt that, outside of Richie Havens and Taj Mahal, blacks were never represented in that folk era in the '60s. We went through that period without representation, and it was important to me to become involved in music that was saying something, that had a philosophy."
About six years ago Francis met up with guitarist Billy Pierce, and they have worked together frequently since then. Where did they meet? In the emergency room at Cafritz Hospital (now Greater Southeast Community Hospital), where Pierce was a technician.
"We'd heard about each other, and one day we managed to get together and jam. It was the beginning of a great relationship."
For his new album Francis went to Nashville, using top-notch studio musicians and Moses Dillard Jr., one of the few black producers in that city. "Timeless," which took a year to put together in the face of Francis' cardiology commitments, features six originals and a variety of song styles connected by his smooth singing and soft fusion playing. It's available at all Penguin Feather stores.
"A wild experience," Francis says of the album's making, and a valuable one that gives him a professional product to shop around.
A couple of years back, he had released a poorly recorded single of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" backed with the Eagles' "Desperado." He couldn't get any local stations to play it, and the sound quality "gave them an excuse. I decided this time around, I wouldn't give them that excuse."
So it's different this time around? "No," he laughs. "They're still not playing it. The music doesn't fit their formats."
Ironically, Francis' album has been featured on NPR's Morning Edition, and next week he'll be the subject of a 17-minute Voice of America segment beamed around the world. "I can get my music heard in China and Russia, but I want to get my record played in D.C.," Francis mockingly moans. "Can anyone tell me how to do that?"
In the meantime, he doctors and he performs. Saturday's concert at Mount Vernon is an expansion on a similar benefit held last year.
"Insurance companies don't always pick up the tab on cardiac rehabilition, and so some people couldn't get in the program," Francis explains. Moneys raised last year helped put five people through the rehabilitation program.
Among those joining Francis in concert will be his long-time collaborator Pierce, guitarist Eugene Mills and keyboard player Arthur Leacy, who lives in Northern Virginia and does musical arrangements for the "Cosby Show."
Ultimately, Francis is a healer, no matter which hat he's wearing. "For me music is a healing force," he says. "I think we work all our lives to achieve the American dream, and what I've found as a cardiologist is that the American dream can kill you. That's how I make a living, off of people who have realized the American dream -- they've got ulcers, heart attacks, strokes. Striving to get somewhere gets to be the driving force, and people put their horns on the shelf or the guitar in the closet.
"I decided I wasn't going to do that. One day a week I get into my music, and on that day I'm a musician. When I show back up at work the next day, I feel good."