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The Ballad of the
Country Doctor

photo
[Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
Once a bright new light in country music, Cleve Francis plays one of his guitars in the basement of his home in Northern Virginia. Francis, who runs his own cardiology practice, still performs around the Washington area.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2000


Cleve Francis had the voice and the looks, but never hit it big in Nashville. Was it his music the industry didn't want? Or was it him?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Only eight years ago, in this city of music dreams, Cleve Francis found himself living one. He stepped onto a sprawling stage at country music's annual lovefest, Fan Fair, and the moment glowed with possibilities.

A sellout crowd of 25,000 whooped and cheered. The lean country newcomer beamed, sporting his well-trimmed black beard, a black Western jacket and black slacks. With a warm voice -- likened in the media to a blend of James Taylor and Bill Withers -- he launched into his signature song, Love Light.


This is the first of two stories on the African-American experience in country music. Part II appears in Monday's Floridian.

It was a scene out of Hollywood.

Here was a descendant of Louisiana sharecroppers who became a successful cardiologist before ever setting foot in Nashville.

 Hear Cleve Francis

Love Light

Walkin'

We Fell in Love Anyway
Duet with Patti Austin

To play the audio you will need the free QuickTime player for Windows or Macintosh.

Here was a man who, at 44, paid for his own country music video and then watched in amazement as it climbed into the Top 10; was signed out of nowhere by the most powerful studio chief in country; and received the kind of advance press new acts never even imagine -- profiles in People, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today.

Here was Cleve Francis, a rising star and one of the first African-American country artists signed to a major deal since Charley Pride in 1965.

"It was such a wonderful feeling," he says. "Everything looked so great."

It would take nearly a year before Francis began to sense that something wasn't quite right.

His first two singles barely cracked the rotations at country radio stations. No radio play equals no record sales, no fan base, no future.

That problem was compounded by another. Francis couldn't land a spot on a major tour, the kind headlined by a superstar act. In three years, his tour revenues went from respectable to virtually non-existent.

As suddenly as it began, the dream was over. And Cleve Francis was left to wonder why.

Lingering questions

Five years have passed since Francis gave up his country music career. He returned to his pre-Nashville life as a cardiologist in Alexandria, Va., where he runs a practice of seven doctors.

His office walls are adorned with medical diplomas and with mementoes of the career that did not blossom: a photograph from his debut performance at Fan Fair, framed covers of his three albums, and a lavish proclamation from the Country Music Foundation. It hails the work Francis did in creating an acclaimed CD box set of African-American influences on country music -- a project that helped lead to a new support organization, the Black Country Music Association.

Francis, 55, takes pride in all that. Still, he has questions: What went wrong? Why did he fall short?

Was he just part of the endless parade of promising artists who never quite make it in country music?

Or was there something else, something as elusive as radio waves -- yet no less powerful -- that unraveled his country aspirations?

"In terms of talent, background and determination, I had everything it took to become a country star, not a superstar, but a working star," he says. "And I think that was denied me by the history of this industry, by the confusion of what to do with a black artist. I had the whole package: the voice, name recognition, fan support, major label support, but for some reason, I was denied passage."

The reasons Francis did not succeed in country may never be entirely clear. But to get closer to the answers, you need to know the whole story.

photo
[Times photo:Lisa DeJong]
Dr. Cleveland Francis talks with one of his cardiology patients in Inova Alexandria Hospital in Virginia.

A star is born

In 1990, Francis was practicing medicine in Virginia. On the side he played country music gigs at local clubs, performing a style of music he had loved ever since he was a kid. He imagined his life would always be this way.

Then one of his heart-attack patients helped him connect with an independent country producer, who took the doctor to Nashville to record an album. Yet without a major label, the album went nowhere.

On a whim, Francis hired a young filmmaker to do a video for one of the songs, Love Light. "I paid $25,000 of my own money, but this guy wanted to break into country, so he pulled out all the stops and gave me a video worth $75,000," says Francis.

Francis personally delivered the video to Country Music Television. The fledgling cable channel was immersed with videos from country's flock of new stars, but would occasionally accept videos from non-label acts.

In those days, fans' votes determined which songs made the Top 10, and Francis watched from Virginia as his video climbed. It soon was in rotation with The Dance, a video that helped launch Garth Brooks into orbit, settling at No. 9 beside hits from Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn.

One of country's hottest producers was watching, too. Jimmy Bowen had Garth Brooks, Tanya Tucker and other big-name acts on his Liberty label. When he walked by the big-screen TV in his house and saw Francis' video, he called his studio and told an assistant to find the singer immediately.

Says Francis: "So I'm at my office and the phone rings, and I hear, "Jimmy Bowen wants to see you.' "

Bowen flew Francis to Nashville first class, wined and dined him. Finally, at Bowen's kitchen table, he signed him to a three-record deal.

The cardiology practice Francis had founded in 1978 now had five doctors on staff. He helped hire his own replacement and left medicine, with no intention of ever coming back.

An American tale

Cleve Francis was the oldest of six children in a rural dot of a town called Jennings, La. His mother and father had no formal education, often working instead of attending grade school. But they understood the importance of education and urged their children to study hard.

Then there was music. At 8, Francis built his first guitar out of an old King Edward cigar box, with wire peeled off the screen-door for guitar strings. The next year, his parents scraped together enough money to buy him a $25 mail-order Sears Silvertone.

"It was as big as I was," he recalls.

Growing up, he listened to a mix of music on the family radio. He liked the rock 'n' roll of the Beatles, the folk music of Peter, Paul & Mary, and always, the down-home sound of country, especially his father's favorite, Hank Williams Sr. For Francis, the music was about feelings and stories, never about the skin color of the singer.

When his peers drifted toward the R&B sounds of James Brown and the Temptations, Francis didn't go along. "I had this other thing, acoustic music you could play on the porch. That's what country was to me, and what I loved," he says.

The salutatorian of his high school, Francis earned a scholarship to Southern University, an all-black college. In 1965, the same year Charley Pride signed with RCA, Francis entered the College of William & Mary, where he was one of only five blacks on campus. He earned his masters in biology, playing guitar at coffeehouses and local clubs.

He went on to medical school at Virginia Commonwealth. Classmates did summer internships at hospitals; he'd hop in a van with a band and play shows around the state.

After a residency and a cardiology fellowship, he set up a practice in Northern Virginia. But true to the pattern of his life, Francis kept playing country gigs.

And one day, out of the blue, he found himself at Jimmy Bowen's kitchen table with a dream in hand.

The ride

The advance buzz on Francis, "The Country Doctor," was unreal. He appeared on Today, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning and networks from TNN to CNN.

He was going to be the next Charley Pride, the country star who amassed 27 No. 1 hits and was RCA's best-selling artist behind only Elvis Presley.

Pride's race intially was seen as a liability, something to be covered up. RCA didn't use a picture of him on his first album, waiting until the public had embraced him to issue photos.

To ease the tension in his early concerts, Pride loosened up his audiences by referring to his "permanent tan." Perhaps out of necessity, he kept quiet about what it was like to be a black country artist.

When Francis hit the scene a quarter-century later, he felt no need to avoid the topic. "Music belongs to everybody," he told Pollstar magazine. "...If people want to call me the only black on a major country label, that's fine. I'm sure I won't always be that."

Francis' first album, Tourist In Paradise, spurred advance orders of 100,000, an all-time record for a debut country CD without a hit song to propel it. His media kit included a toy stethoscope, doctor's bag, and a prescription to play the CD four times daily.

Francis embarked on a coast-to-coast radio station tour. Bowen ordered an expensive remake of Francis' original Love Light video and then released the song as a single.

The release of the first single is a critical moment for any CD, but especially for a debut album. If station managers and program directors like a song and get behind it, they can jump-start a career. Case in point: In 1992, Francis' debut year, an unknown from Kentucky hit the airwaves with a catchy ditty, pre-packaged with a new line dance. Billy Ray Cyrus and Achy Breaky Heart were the rage of radio and video that year.

Francis had high hopes for Love Light because the original video had stayed in the CMT rotation for 19 months. The song had a sing-along, mid-tempo feel, interweaving pedal steel and a horn section. Francis drew upon his church choir background to give it a country-gospel texture, and was excited about Bowen's new production.

But radio wasn't wowed. Love Light never made it into the Top 40, nor did the next single, You Do My Heart Good.

The third scheduled single was the title cut, Tourist in Paradise, and featured an elaborate, $30,000 video with Francis toting a suitcase in a vaudeville party scene. Francis loved the hip, retro feel of the video, but Bowen had a problem with it. "He felt people might think I looked like Stepin Fetchit, and he didn't want to take a chance on embarrassing me, or perhaps being criticized for exploiting me," says Francis.

Bowen canned the video and single.

"I had a really good feeling about the Tourist In Paradise video," says Francis. "It was very different, and could have been just what I needed at that time to break out. It might have been a case where Jimmy was being overcautious because of race."

Still, by the second album, Walkin', there was talk of a boot endorsement, and Francis' strong performance at Fan Fair '93 created a new wave of excitement. Francis netted $176,000 his first year on the road, a good showing for a new act.

Yet during Francis' second year with Liberty, he knew his career was stalling. Walkin' fared well on video, but radio remained cool to his single -- as it did to all five of his singles over three years.

His credibility became an issue. Some DJs questioned why Francis was involved in country music, suggesting he was on a mid-life lark, pursuing a hobby funded by doctor's salary. Rumors spread that he had bought his way into Nashville for $1-million.

Maybe worst of all, Francis could not find a spot on a big-name artist's tour. At the end of his second year, his concert take had dropped to $35,000. By his third, he had only one show on the books, at his hometown club in Virginia, for $5,000.

Garth Brooks could have helped, but didn't. He was asked in a CBS network feature whether he owned any of his label mate's records. It was an easy opportunity for Brooks to plug Francis at a time when he badly needed help. But Brooks paused and responded, "I just haven't felt that this was something I couldn't live without."

Pieces of the puzzle

Though Francis' first two albums failed, he was determined to make the final one on his contract.

His last video off the album was a country-pop duet, We Fell In Love Anyway, with R&B; singer Patti Austin. "Probably the smart thing to do was put out a song with fiddles and a yee-haw feel," he said. "But Jimmy and I decided to come out with this one. It was my way of saying, "If I'm leaving, I'm going to do it my way.' " Bowen released the song to adult-contemporary stations, but it failed to make a dent.

In three years as a country artist, Francis had given up some $300,000 in income from his medical practice, and the narrow window for rejoining it was about to shut. Crestfallen and confused, he left country music behind.

So what went wrong?

On the surface, it seemed Francis had gone to Nashville at exactly the right moment. In the early '90s, the definition of the genre was expanding. There was the country-meets-pop sound of Brooks and McEntire, the traditional feel of Vince Gill and Alan Jackson, the rocking line dance craze ushered in by Cyrus and Brooks & Dunn, the folk-tinged melodies and lyricism of Mary Chapin Carpenter, the R&B;/blues touch of Lee Roy Parnell. Country dominated all other forms of popular music on the radio.

"Everybody loved country music," said Ed Morris, former Nashville bureau chief at Billboard. "We were practically running up and down the streets spraying each other with champagne for years there. It was like a party -- "let's invite everybody.' "

Well, not everybody. For male artists, it helped to be in your 20s or early 30s and have a rough-and-tumble sex appeal that played well on video. It wasn't just the 46-year-old Francis who was hurt by this trend. Some of country's greatest names -- George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings -- would find themselves squeezed off mainstream radio because they were seen as too old and not glamorous enough for the youth market.

Francis' timing was bad for another reason: In the early '90s, radio consultants began exerting major influence over country station playlists. Playlists were shortened and it was harder for new artists to break into the big-star rotations.

Finally, there were doubts about Francis' songs. Liberty studio boss Jimmy Bowen, who spent roughly $1-million on Francis, put the blame on himself for not getting him the right music. Francis' tunes had a mellow country texture, unlike the boot-scootin', two-steppin', rock-fueled songs by the male stars.

"The hard-core reality is that we came close, but we did not nail the piece of music that would have opened the door to radio," says Bowen, now retired.

Says ex-Billboard chief Morris: "Cleve never got pitched the best songs. I don't know if that's racism or not. Songwriters are very commercial, and they want their songs to go to people who are charting."

Francis doesn't buy it.

"I think the problem was that there were radio people who just assumed my music was not viable, like they were dealing with a Martian, and the rest of the music was by Earthlings," he says. "So I believe my songs were almost treated like they didn't exist."

Francis heard that his press kit was tossed in the trash unopened at some small stations, and says a booking agent told him some club owners refused to hire him because he was black.

Looking back on his three years on the road, Francis says there was a polarization of racial feelings nationwide. The Rodney King riots and the O.J. Simpson trial both fell during that time.

"I'd go into some places, and you could feel it," he says. "Some people had already made their decision (about me), and it was a hard thing to overcome."

Had they really made their decision about him, or was that something he imagined? How could he know for sure? Discrimination can be overt or it can be a colorless, odorless gas. And maybe sometimes it's not there at all. Francis leaves no doubt about where he comes down on the issue.

"Every other system in this country has made an effort to right itself," he says.

"This isn't like the fight for civil rights, where blacks were getting beat up, denied the right to vote and kept out of restaurants. Nobody is going to die today or tomorrow if they don't hear a black country singer. But it does deny people an opportunity, and that is not supposed to happen in this country."

photo
[Photo: AP]
Cleve Francis was a driving force behind the three-CD boxset, From Where I Stand: The Black Experience In Country Music, highlights contributions African-Americans have made to country through the decades. Francis (far right) gathered in 1998 with a handful of artists included on the project: (from left to right) Dobie Gray, Big Al Downing, Aaron Neville and Charley Pride.

A new road through old terrain

Francis' career was all but over when he had an idea: Why not release a box-set of black contributions to country music over the years? He pitched the idea to the Country Music Foundation, which runs the country Hall of Fame. The foundation soon enlisted the support of Warner-Reprise Records.

Francis helped oversee the ambitious three-CD project, accompanied by a booklet of historical essays. The result in 1996 was From Where I Stand: The Black Experience In Country Music -- the first tangible record of African-American country music.

"I knew my career was gone. but we needed to do something because others would follow," he says.

Also, in a 1996 commentary for Billboard, Francis spoke out for country's need to include blacks at all levels. Later, Francis was instrumental in the formation the Black Country Music Association, a Nashville group dedicated to helping African-Americans make it in the business. It has more than 60 artists nationwide.

"Cleve Francis has actually had more impact on the industry as an ex-country music star than he did as a country music star," says Bruce Feiler, author of Dreaming Out Loud . . . And The Changing Face of Nashville. "In a way, he's become a conscience of Music Row."

Perhaps things are starting to change. Three weeks ago, a new African-American country artist, Trini Triggs, stepped onto the hallowed stage of the Grand Ole Opry and made his solo debut before a packed house.

Time will tell if Triggs can succeed. Meanwhile, he follows a country road blazed by one black singer who made it, Pride, and one who did not, Francis.

Amid his daily bustle as a cardiologist, Francis holds tight to the memories of his three-year ride in Nashville. He talks of cutting one more album on an independent label. He continues to receive fan mail from all over the world.

And always, he wonders.

To contact Cleve Francis, write to The Cleve Francis Fan Club, P.O. Box 15258, Alexandria, Va. 22309

COMING MONDAY: New black voices in country.

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