Cleve Francis on Race, Country Music and the Chart-Topping Achievements of Darius Rucker
Cleve Francis is probably the only African American singer/cardiologist ever to have placed a song on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. He did it four times, in fact, in the early 1990s, with "Love Light," "You Do My Heart Good," "How Can I Hold You" and "Walkin'," each of which was a minor hit.
Francis became something of a national media sensation (a black cardiologist singing country music?!), but he never truly broke through. And so, 15 years ago, Francis -- who'd been one of the only African American country singers signed to a major label since Charley Pride in the 1960s -- gave up his country-stardom pursuit and returned to Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates, the Northern Virginia practice he'd founded in 1978.
Francis still performs the occasional concert, though, as with his upcoming date at the Birchmere, on April 11.
He's never really stopped thinking about race in country music, either. A decade ago, Francis helped oversee the historical three-CD project, "From Where I Stand: The Black Experience In Country Music." And after The Post published my Darius Rucker profile last December, Francis was eager to discuss the "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" singer's achievement as the first black performer to land a No. 1 country single since Charley Pride scored the last of his 29 chart-toppers in 1983.
Rucker recently ascended to No. 1 again with "It Won't Be Like This For Long," prompting Francis to say, simply: "I am elated."
Last October, when Darius Rucker became the first African American to score a No. 1 country single in 25 years, you told me that you weren't sure much had really changed in terms of racial attitudes in country music. But now that he's done it again, you've changed your mind?
I think it's a turning point or sea change. You look at Charley Pride having all those No. 1s and then years go by and nobody's able to do it again -- there's gotta be some kind of extraneous thing. I think it's where we were racially. With Darius, I thought it was going to be something that just happened once. Where does it go from there? ... But I think we've reached the point that there's generational permission; there's a new generation that's now allowing this to happen.
Darius told me last November that a year earlier, he'd told his son: "You can be anything you want except president or a country singer." But that he couldn't say that anymore.
[Laughs.] That's true! He had every reason to believe that up until now. The tragedy for me and some of the other blacks who were singing country is that we're from the country. I grew up in Jennings, La., around country, blues, zydeco. But people were saying: "Why are you singing this music?" They'd attach a racial note to it.
Were you frustrated that you never became a breakthrough star?
I was. At one point, I could sing like a bird. I was really good; still am to some degree, but I was better when I was younger. I left my practice and went on sabbatical with this belief that if you have talent and if you have the songs, people will give you a chance. When I was out in the early '90s, I was popular on the road; I just couldn't get played on the radio. I felt like it wasn't in my control. It was a shame.
I think the country music audience accepted me hands-down; I never ran into one discriminatory situation the two-three years I was out there. Never. But I will always feel bad that all these other things came in my way. Seeing somebody like Darius get those No. 1s somehow vindicates it for me. People like me had to be out there so that one day, a Darius Rucker could walk onstage and people could take him for his music.
(Read the rest of the interview after the jump.)
And at your Birchmere concert, you'll perform one of his songs?
I will: "Don't Think I Don't Think About It." It's a great song. I think he really delivers it, and he has all of what I call "the country gumbo" in there: The steel, the fiddles and all of that.
What were the early 90s like for you? You're busy running a cardiology practice, and at the same time, you're trying to launch a country career. Oh, and by the way, you're an African American in an exceedingly white genre!
[Laughs.] It was challenging. But a friend of mine convinced me that I had to do this. He was profound. He said: "It may not work, but you still have to do it. You may not be the benefactor, but somebody else might be. This is the link that's needed."
And really, there was nobody out there in the '90s. There were some people that came after me like Trini Triggs, but I filled in that huge gap. It kept that thing alive: Why aren't there African American country singers? It was tough times for America when I was out there. It was the O.J. Simpson-Rodney King thing. When I released my song "Walkin'," the air was so thick; the country was very polarized at that time. And yet we managed to talk a few people into playing the record.
And you probably became the only black country singer/cardiologist to hit the Billboard genre chart.
Exactly! And also the only one to play the Grand Ole Opry. I had a wonderful time. I left my practice with not any kind of illusions; maybe it was good that I was a physician, because maybe I would've been totally destroyed by what happened otherwise. But I was totally confident in who I was. I was going to give it a try, sing as hard as I could, introduce people to a new African American country singer. I didn't know where it was going to go, but if I fell flat on my face, I'd fall on my stethoscope.
You still perform occasionally, but do you find yourself having to ignore or fend off the urge to spend more time on music?
My performing skills are still there, where I could probably make a living doing it if I ever got back to it. I don't think I would ever go back on the road. But I have a couple more goals. I always wanted to play Wolf Trap. Maybe if Darius plays there, he'd have me open for him. [Laughs.] I've done an all-black country bill before, maybe the only one: When Charley Pride played in Chesapeake, Va., I opened for him and he was the main act; this was probably 1991 or 1992.
And I also want to play the White House, which might be a possibility now. I'd love to do that as a cultural thing. Music has always been such a big part of my life that I never could see myself without it. I enjoyed what I did, and I still do. I'm fortunate to be a guy who's involved professionally with saving people's lives, and who has also been gifted with a talent that improves the quality of people's lives.
A brief version of this interview was published in Sunday Style & Arts.
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