THESE DAYS, CARDIOLOGIST CLEVE Francis is following his heart: After 13 years of running one of the largest cardiology practices in northern Virginia, he hopes to shed his lab coat for the spangled duds of a country music star. Now that his first major-label album, Tourist in Paradise, has hit Billboard’s country chart, he reckons he’s making the right choice. “When I started out in cardiology, I couldn’t wait to see the next patient,” says Francis, the only black country singer signed to a major label (Liberty Records). “Now, there’s not that much excitement in this. But I think with my music I can bring just as much joy into people’s lives as I can with pills and medicine.”
Though Francis, 47, still sees patients, the prognosis for an eventual career switch is excellent: In 1990, Country Music Television fan—requests propelled his self-financed video, Love Light, into its Top 10, and now a cut from the album called “You Do My Heart Good” is close to breaking into country radio’s Top 40. Francis, who took a month-long sabbatical in April to promote his album, has appeared on CBS This Morning, the Today show and on Good Morning, America, and last week he sang in Nashville at its annual star-filled gala, Fan Fair. “Boy, I like this guy’s voice,” says Tanya Tucker, last year’s Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year. “He’s an entertainer and a song stylist. I’m a fan.”
For all of that, success, whether in medicine or music, has never come easily for Francis. Born in the town of Jennings, La., he was the only boy among the six children of Cleveland Francis, a janitor, and wife Mary, a maid. “When you’re poor, you entertain yourself a lot,” says Francis, who remembers listening to blues-guitar jam sessions on the porch. “Music was part of the landscape.”
As a boy, Cleve made himself a guitar from a cigar box and wires pulled from a window screen. In 1953, Mary used her savings to buy him a Silvertone guitar from a catalogue, but she got him to promise he’d always spend more time with his books than with his music. “She believed the only way we’d escape poverty was through education,” he says.
Cleve kept his word. In high school he discovered an aptitude for science, but he always managed to strum and sing with church and school groups. In 1963 he enrolled at Southern University, a mostly black school in Baton Rouge, on a government loan as a premed student. Soon he was giving his first concert on campus. “What I heard was tremendous,” recalls Dr. Huel Perkins, then chairman of the music department. “Nobody taught him. The ear was just there, the feeling was there.”
In 1967 the guitar-toting would-be doctor entered the medical school of the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. In addition to earning money as a teacher’s assistant, he sang for $25 a night at a local coffeehouse. “Most guys would get summer jobs in the hospitals as nurses’ aides or phlebotomists, drawing blood,” Francis says. “But I’d head back to the coffeehouses and hang out with my musician buddies. That’s where I felt at home.”
During his grueling years of internship, residency and fellowship at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., Francis kept up his double life-turning out two narrowly distributed albums while mastering the fine points of EKGs and heart murmurs. When he completed his fellowship in 1978, he discovered that no one wanted to hire a black cardiologist-no matter how well he could sing. Starting his own group practice in Alexandria left him little time for private life; his childless eight-year marriage ended in 1978, and he is currently without a steady.
Now Francis is readying himself for what may be his biggest challenge. The doctor himself is typically confidant about his chances for making it in Nashville. “I think I’m going to be a superstar in two years,” he says.
His mom, however, is a bit more sanguine. “After all, it’s not as if he doesn’t know anything,” says Mary Francis, 63. “If something goes wrong, he can always go back to medicine.”
SARAH SKOLNIK in Alexandria