A VCU medical school student’s country music career is gaining new and overdue attention – VCU News
Cleve Francis, MD, He was 15 years old in a successful medical career when a record company manager gave him a chance.
“He came in and said, ‘Who the hell are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a cardiologist.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s your problem. I’d like to be signed to Capitol Records.’
The executive watched a music video for “Love Light,” which Francis financed and personally delivered to Country Music Television. He took Francis to Nashville for the offer of a lifetime.
“I was single at the time, and probably needed a break from the challenges of cardiology,” says Francis, a former student at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “I decided to take a sabbatical and see.”
For three years in the early 1990s, Francis recorded albums, appeared in music videos, appeared on national media, toured the world and performed to thousands of audiences. Then, after pushing his musical career as far as he could go, Francis returned to his “first love” of cardiology, a love nurtured on the MCV Campus. But the music never went away.
It was part of the culture he grew up in in southwest Louisiana, surrounded by the gospel and blues of the 1950s. Young Francis made a guitar out of a cigar box, and his mother, impressed by his ingenuity, saved up to buy her 9-year-old son a real one.
Becoming a doctor, on the other hand, was not a natural progression. Francis did not meet a black doctor until he attended college at Southern University in Baton Rouge, receiving his family’s first formal education.
“When I was a kid, in any emergency, you had to drive to a charity hospital 44 kilometers away,” says Francis. “Some did; some don’t”.
Meeting a black doctor changed the course of his life. “I switched to pre-med that day.”
But medical schools didn’t accept applicants from his historically Black college, and Francis ended up at the College of William and Mary, working with reptiles and earning a master’s degree in biology.
From there, along with Archer Baskerville, Francis was one of only two black students admitted to the primary school class in 1969.
“I loved Richmond,” says Francis. “It was the capital of the Confederacy, but MCV was pretty isolated. We were learning. They were all in the same boat. Archer and I joined. We became part of it.”
In medical school, she and some of her classmates organized jam sessions on the porch of the nursing home on Friday nights.
“Back then I sang more folk – ‘soulfolk,'” says Francis, who was later elected vice president of his class. “Music brought us all together. I think many boys met their wives in that lobby.’
During school breaks, Francis returned to the Tidewater area to perform with local folk bands. Loans and scholarships helped Francis get through medical school, but money from concert gigs allowed him to buy books, clothes and food.
Initially interested in OB-GYN or psychiatry, Francis gravitated toward cardiology after seeing a code blue at North Hospital, where cardiologists calmed the room and stabilized the patient.
“‘That’s what I want to do,'” Francis says he thought. “I want to organize chaos when it’s life or death.”
This included an internal medicine residency and a cardiology fellowship at George Washington University Hospital in Washington. Francis then founded Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates, which later became the second largest cardiology practice in Northern Virginia. And there she was when the music director heard her soft voice and saw her face on CMT.
“The biggest person I had to convince, when I decided to get a record deal, was my mother,” says Francis. He grew up in segregation and poverty, he added, but his six children became professionals.
“My mother was quite proud of that feat, and she wanted to make sure I was making the right decision: to follow my heart, but not lose what I fought for.”
Francis traveled the world, singing songs.You make my Heart Good,” “Enter,'” and “We fell in love anyway“. He shot music videos that got heavy rotation on CMT.
“I played Fan Fair Fair in Nashville in front of 25,000 people,” Fhe says. “I played June Jam in Alabama in front of 75,000 people. I’ve been on all the national television, all the major newspapers. I think that people generally accepted my gifts with pleasure.’
Francisco’s mother had to see everything. And after three years he saw a successful return to cardiology. Francis believed that he had gone as far as he could in the music industry.
“I was older, and I was a black artist in country music,” he says. “Besides, I was a cardiologist and I had a lot of people to serve.”
Francis worked for another 25 years, sold his practice to Inova Health System and retired from clinical work in 2021. He is now a diversity consultant at the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute, where he writes and lectures on patient personalization, bias, and racism in health care. . In 2018, he received the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute’s Pioneer Award for lifetime achievement in cardiology.
He has continued playing and acting. And his work is being rediscovered by a new audience. Francis’ early 1960s recordings were reissued last year “Beyond the Willow“. And a Washington Post profile last July explored how far Francis could have gone in the country music industry without racial bias.
Francis laid the groundwork for other black artists. He founded the Black Country Music Association to help others in that genre. And recent years have brought awards that later recognize his contributions to country music, including the 2022 Black Opry Icon Award. His music is housed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC
“I had the opportunity to live two lives in one person,” says Francis. “How many people have that opportunity?
“I’m probably the only cardiologist in the world who has had this experience.”
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to VCU News at bulletin.vcu.edu and get stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings delivered to your inbox.