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Cleve Francis’s ‘unsung’ story, still inspiring Black country artists

Thirty years ago, a Virginia cardiologist took a chance on Nashville and a record deal. He doesn’t regret it, but his many admirers still wonder what might have been.

Cleve Francis is a cardiologist who also made a name for himself, briefly, as a country music artist in the 1990s. He was recently honored by the Black Opry for his contributions to country music. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
15 min

Even with a recording contract in hand, Cleveland Francis still wasn’t certain he wanted to move to Nashville.

It was the early 1990s, and Francis was an Alexandria, Va.-based cardiologist who happened to have a singing voice that stopped listeners in their tracks. Even though he thought of music mostly as an enjoyable side project, releasing songs when he could and performing at local venues, he caught the attention of country music industry executives who urged him to move to Music City and take a real shot at becoming a full-time recording artist.

Francis had doubts, so he called his music producer friend, Moses Dillard. “I said, ‘I’m in my 40s now. I’ve got a cardiology practice,’ ” Francis recalled in an interview.

But Dillard was insistent: “He said, ‘You are the only Black person on the face of the Earth who has this opportunity. You need to go. … You have to hold this spot. You weren’t given all these talents for nothing.’ ”

So he went. Francis signed with Liberty Records (now Capitol Records Nashville), becoming one of a small group of Black artists to have a major-label recording contract since Charley Pride signed with RCA in the mid-1960s. Francis released his debut major-label album, “Tourist in Paradise,” in the spring of 1992.

From 1992 to 1995, he would release three albums and had a handful of singles (“Love Light”; “You Do My Heart Good”; “Walkin’ ”) that appeared ever so briefly on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

His story could pretty much end there, like so many others: A talented singer follows his dreams to Nashville, experiences both the brief highs and disappointing lows of a fickle industry, and eventually returns home to the carry on with his life. Francis’s story, however, remains fascinating to country music historians, admirers, the occasional journalist or anyone who wonders what might have been: Would he be more famous today if Nashville didn’t have a long-acknowledged (yet never remedied) lack of diversity?

“Growing up and learning about all the different country artists, especially the ones that look like me — from Charley Pride to DeFord Bailey before him — I heard about Cleve Francis. A doctor that got into country music,” country star Jimmie Allen said recently, by email. “He was definitely one of those artists I wish would have gotten the recognition he deserved, but he touched many people’s lives that he probably didn’t realize, including mine. Cleve’s definitely one of my inspirations.”

Francis, who is now 77 and lives in Alexandria with his wife, Hardeep, has been awarded with multiple honors in the past year for his contributions to country music. During his time in Nashville, he also came up with the idea for the Black Country Music Association, which he envisioned representing Black country artists, offering them the support the industry wouldn’t give.

He got that idea because he saw the same patterns in Nashville that he did when he finished medical school and found it difficult to get a job as a Black doctor — so he started his own practice. “I said, ‘Well, maybe Black people need to start their own organization,’ … and the industry should support this,” Francis said.

Black artists have been sidelined in country music for decades. The Black Opry is here to change that.

Black singer-songwriters were routinely sidelined in the majority-White genre, and Francis saw that they needed advocacy at every level, including promotion, artist development, publishing, record labels and radio, as well as support from leaders within the billion-dollar Nashville machine. Early in the 20th century, Black singers were filtered out of country genre as gatekeepers labeled their music as “race records,” as opposed to “hillbilly” or “country and western” categories for White artists.

“Cleve is a visionary — he could see the bigger picture,” said Nashville consultant MaryAnne Howland, founder and chief executive of Ibis Communications, who worked with Francis on marketing the initial idea. The Black Country Music Association, led by singer Frankie Staton after Francis left Nashville, lasted for about a decade. “He wanted to ensure that we were at the table in conversations, that we were part of the industry.”

Staton agreed, calling Francis a part of an “unsung” history who set the “gold standard” for balladeers: “I just hope that this group of people from my generation are not lost and forgotten, because there’s some real talent that’s never been heard by the world,” she said. “And Cleve is the leader of the pack.”

Growing up in Southwest Louisiana in the 1950s, Francis was so fascinated by the guitar that he attempted to cobble one together out of a cigar box and a piece of wood. His mother started putting away quarters to save enough to buy him a real one, though she warned him, “If your grades fall, it goes in the attic.”

Inspired by such legends as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Nat King Cole and Hank Williams, he started writing songs, and those who heard them told him to keep singing. A professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge canceled all his appointments one day, inviting members of the music department to listen to Francis play guitar in his office. At graduate school at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., in the late 1960s, Francis would perform at a coffee shop and people immediately asked if he could return again the next day.

“It was a combination of all different styles into my own style,” Francis said. “I was singing about Black life. This folk music was from my own background.”

He recorded music on his own and played shows as he graduated from the Medical College of Virginia and started Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates in 1978. When The Washington Post wrote about him in the mid-1980s, the paper reported Francis was one of only 100 Black cardiologists in the United States. (The practice was acquired by the Inova Medical Group in 2015; he’s now the diversity adviser at the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute.)

One day, he was treating a patient who had a brother in the music industry; the patient asked Francis for a tape, and suddenly Francis was recording “Love Light,” an upbeat track that is actually about a couple that breaks up. Francis self-financed the music video, which became popular on CMT and caught the attention of Liberty Records label head Jimmy Bowen, who persuaded Francis to sign a record deal around 1991.

“I didn’t have my pager anymore, I was on a tour bus, and I was all excited,” Francis said. His band members, jaded from years in uncomfortable buses, were amused by how thrilled he was to be on the road.

The “country music doctor” was an irresistible marketing hook, especially at a time when country music was experiencing a cultural renaissance with the success of Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson and more. The label sent him on a promotional blitz, and Francis recalls he was a “darling of the press.” (USA Today: “His heart is in country: Cleve Francis is feeling his musical pulse”; The Tennessean: “A heart doc with a voice.”) He was a guest on talk shows and appeared in People and Jet magazine.

Nearly every story about him brought up the rarity of a Black country singer on a major label, but executives tended to downplay it, saying that fans would simply love the music. Francis remembers the near-zero diversity in Nashville just wasn’t something industry staffers talked about in public. He didn’t really talk about it, either. “You get in and you really need to shut up because you’re there, you know, for the grace of whoever,” he said.

In a lot of ways, Francis remembers those three years in Nashville as “heaven.” He shared a label with Brooks and ran into him and other stars around town and at industry events, and recalls them always being kind. Fans adored him and he enjoyed meeting listeners as he played shows and festivals around the country and at the Grand Ole Opry.

But he also had a sense he was “doomed from the start,” he said, primarily because he didn’t find support from country radio, despite going on a countrywide radio tour. “Unless you were coming out of those pickup trucks on the radio, you weren’t going anywhere.”

Even with the marketing push, “Tourist in Paradise,” which Billboard described as being “in the smooth, warm ballad tradition, backed by tasteful and restrained instrumentation,” didn’t sell enough copies to satisfy his label. His second single, a peppy love song titled “You Do My Heart Good,” (“You do my heart good, you make love feel like it should”) charted at No. 47 but couldn’t climb higher. He released “Walkin’ ” in 1993 and “You’ve Got Me Now” in 1994, but they didn’t chart.

“He has such a beautiful voice; a really pure country voice, almost Vince Gill-ish,” said singer-songwriter Rissi Palmer, who hosts Apple Music’s “Color Me Country,” focusing on the Black, Indigenous and Latino roots of country music. “It boggles my mind, but it’s a very common story from the time that if you didn’t hit right away, it wasn’t, ‘Let’s keep trying, let’s keep working with the artist.’ It was, ‘Okay, let’s move on to the next thing.’ ”

Some executives thought his age might be an issue, given that he was, by then, in his mid-40s, and the industry was fixated on youth. But Francis recalled that he went on tour around the time of the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the acquittal of four police officers for beating Black motorist Rodney King, and when O.J. Simpson was charged with murder in 1994.

“The timing was not the best,” he said. “The country was totally polarized at that point.”

He wasn’t able to find opening-act gigs on other country stars’ tours. He heard from his booker that certain clubs owners didn’t want him to play in their venues, telling him, “We’re having a lot of trouble because we can’t book you, there are some really prejudiced people.” He was told he didn’t have the “right” material for a breakout hit, yet he could only record what was given to him, written by outside songwriters. His singles tended to have a gentle, “Kumbaya” vibe, he said, and didn’t make a splash.

“I didn’t have everything I needed,” he said. “That’s why I had to make the best of it for myself. I didn’t want to quit and run. I did three beautiful CDs and five music videos.”

Francis wants people to understand this: When he tells the story of his time in country music, he’s not telling it from a place of anger. He calls it the best time of his life. “I always hesitate to say I didn’t make it because I was Black — because that’s too low-hanging of fruit to go after,” he said.

Instead, he prefers to look toward the future and what can change: “I like to look at the positive aspect of it. Like, what can this industry do differently?”

Francis returned to Alexandria in the mid-’90s, resumed his medical practice and still wrote songs, which he does even now. He recently penned one titled “Buffalo” about the shooting massacre in a mostly Black neighborhood in Buffalo.

His 1970 self-released soul-folk album, “Follow Me,” was recently rereleased and transformed into a 21-track double LP called “Beyond the Willow Tree,” a soothing, melodic collection that captures stories of his life. (“A lost folk treasure,” said Matthew Bruce, owner of Forager Records, which remastered the album.)

But as Francis kept performing concerts over the years (before the pandemic, he was a staple at the Birchmere), he has kept a close eye on Nashville.

He’s gratified to see some in the industry are taking steps to try to correct its racial inequity — although there is a long way to go — and is simultaneously wary that with the few Black singers such as Allen and Mickey Guyton becoming stars, along with Darius Rucker and Kane Brown, labels can point to a handful of success stories like they did decades ago and essentially say, “We’re not prejudiced — look at Charley Pride.”

“The thing we have to look at to make sure that those stars that are out there now doing well as individuals do not preclude anybody else,” he said.

Toward the end of his time in Music City, he became more outspoken, writing a Billboard editorial about how the industry was hurting itself by not marketing country music to Black audiences. “I challenge the industry to do the marketing research necessary to take full economic and artistic advantage of this growing group of country music lovers,” he wrote.

Mickey Guyton has been ready for this moment. Country music kept her waiting.

Around the same time, he met with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and showed staffers a poll that said 24 percent of Black adult radio audiences listened to country music. This meeting helped spur the creation of “From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music,” a three-disc box set of songs released in 1998 that showed how the genre had its roots in Black history, with contributions from a variety of Black country singers.

The project made waves at the time and is still frequently referenced today, particularly by other country artists. Palmer, the host of “Color Me Country,” recalls someone giving her the CDs early in her career when Pride was one of the only other Black singers she knew. “It was just revelatory,” she said.

That has always been one of Francis’s goals, to help create a path for others. While people are still learning about the Black Country Music Association and the work that he and Staton did, Francis is excited to see organizations such as the Black Opry, created in spring 2021 by writer Holly G. Last summer, the organization named Francis and Staton as recipients of the Black Opry Icon Award.

“I think the ultimate goal is not to reinvent the wheel,” Francis said, but for Black singers to be able to “come inside a known entity that has all of the means of production and promotion and be part of that.”

Last fall, the Rosedale Collective, a country music label and foundation dedicated to amplifying artists of color, honored Francis with its inaugural Hazelhurst Award for his impact and idea for the Black Country Music Association.

“He has really made it possible for a lot of artists of color in country music, and in particular Black artists, to do the work they do today,” said Rosedale Collective co-founder Samantha Viotty. “What this has been about is building a community and looking back to people who paved the way. Unfortunately, so few [Black country artists] even made it to that point.”

While there has been some momentum in Nashville in recent years to give a platform to singers of color — such as a record number of Black singers being recognized at award shows or televised performances — many are cautious not to celebrate too soon, given the genre’s tendency to fall back into old patterns. Francis believes that actual progress won’t happen until certain structural changes occur at every level of the industry.

“My hope is that soon, if not already, the leadership of these major bottlenecks to racial progress in the country music industry are undergoing a changing of the guard to a younger, more socially progressive group of men and women who see no future in this industry on the racial path it has taken since the 1920s,” he wrote in an email.

Those who have known Francis for decades are glad that he is starting to get the recognition he deserves. “It’s as if a seed that was planted deep down somehow is beginning to take root,” Howland said. “So that’s why he’s earned his roses, if you will, and folks are honoring him. He’s the one who came in and saw and dreamed of this incredible future that we’re just now seeing begin to possibly happen.”

And as an increasing number of people share what Francis’s journey in Nashville meant to them, he doesn’t have regrets.

“I would have loved to have been a major star and travel the world,” he said. “But taking care of people with heart disease and saving lives is pretty impressive.”