I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. For most people, it would have been enough to find your way from a big family in a tiny Louisiana town to leading a respected cardiology practice of seven doctors located outside the nation's capital, but not Cleve Francis.

All his life he has nursed another dream along with medicine, to be a country-music star. And he did it. He's had four songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart. He was one of the first African-American country-music artists signed to a major record deal, after Charley Pride broke through in 1965.

His latest album is "Storytime - Live at the Birchmere," and he is in the house today along with his big band to tell us more about his journey from Louisiana to medical school to the Grand Ole Opry and back. Please welcome Cleve Francis & Friends.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: So cardiologist, country-music star. When you were growing up, what did you want to be?

Dr. CLEVE FRANCIS (Cardiologist; Musician): I probably just wanted to get out of Louisiana, but we were very poor, and my mother insisted on an educational track. And I had my guitar, and I would take it from there.

MARTIN: Tell me about that first guitar.

Dr. FRANCIS: Well, I was about nine or 10 years old, and there were older people on my street who played guitar and harmonica, banjo, and I wanted one. And my mother saved quarters, actually, for over a year. She got a down payment, and she also got it on time at Sears & Roebuck, and it was a big, blue-and-white guitar. It was a tiny thing now.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I just have to ask. Do you all even know what getting something on time means?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We have an age range in the studio today, and I'm not sure that they know what getting on time means. I think they think it means paying off your credit card that month, but no, it actually means saving up and layaway.

Dr. FRANCIS: That's right, layaway, but we finally got it, and the thing was taller than I was. I'll never forget the smell of the nice, new wood and the blue-and-white guitar. And she made me made a promise that if I didn't do my schoolwork, she would put it in the attic. So I tried to honor that and keep my guitar. It was a great thing for me, and I started teaching myself to play the guitar. But I didn't think about professionally singing until actually I got to college, and it was just kind of an accident the way it happened.

MARTIN: How did it happen? I mean, a lot of people talk about chasing their dreams, but you actually did it. And you actually jumped into - as I understand it, you were playing gigs all through school, and it was kind of a hobby, fun hobby, but that, if you don't mind my telling your business - you don't have a choice, really, do you? At the age of 44, you actually left your practice and jumped into the business full time. How did that happen?

Dr. FRANCIS: Well actually the business found me. I liked to sing, and so I was playing music. I did a few tapes and a couple of 45 RPMS for myself and for my friends. And I happened to be on call at Mount Vernon Hospital one weekend, and a guy came in with a massive heart attack, and I treated him. His brother came from Florida, happened to be in the music business. And we got to talking as his brother improved, and he said well, I'd like to hear some of the stuff.

So I brought him some of the tapes, and I didn't know. He took this thing back to Miami, Florida, and a couple months later I got a call from a guy by the name of Jack Gale, president of Playback Records, and he said, you know, I'd really like to record you.

So we worked it out and then were off to Nashville and did a little album called "Last Call for Love," and the album led to a video where it got on CMT, and it got into the top 10 with Garth Brooks and Vince Gill. And Jimmy Bowen, the president of Capital Records, happened to be walking through his den one evening and saw my video, and he said, who is that? Get in touch with this guy. So I'm off to Nashville, and he signed me up at his kitchen table. So I think the music chased me down. I was still treating hearts.

MARTIN: Well, let's hear some of that. What do you want to play for us first? Let's hear something. You want to play what?

Dr. FRANCIS: I'll do a little a little song called, "I'll Stop Loving You." And incidentally, this song was written by Mike Reid, who was a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bangles, who turned songwriter and moved to Nashville, so I got this song from him.

Dr. FRANCIS: (singing) I will lay me down in the healing ground when my life is through. Say amen, so maybe then I'll stop loving you. They say the sun out in the desert, hot enough to fry your brain. And the night air so cold it'll change your mind. I watched the clear blue sky turn a bitter gray on the day that you left me behind. I've heard nothing lasts forever, time is going to heal my wounds. But from where I stand I just can't see how that could be true. So I will lay me down in the healing ground when my life is through. Say amen and maybe then I'll stop loving you. I ride this sad and lonely city driven by memory, thinking some night that I might find this lost love. And the heartache keeps chipping steadily away at me, living in hell in the shell of the man I was. I've heard nothing lasts forever, time is going to heal my wounds, but from where I stand I just can't see how that could be true. So I will lay me down in the healing ground when my life is through. Say amen and maybe then I'll stop loving you. I'll say amen, maybe then I'll stop loving you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. FRANCIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: That is "I'll Stop Loving You" from "Storytime: Live At The Birchmere" with Cleve Francis and friends. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Dr. Cleve Francis, a cardiologist based in the Washington, D.C. area. And we're talking about his other life as a country music star. We said Cleve Francis and friends. Why don't you introduce us to some of your friends here today.

Dr. FRANCIS: Far left, Mr. Gary Green, harmonica. Jeff Holdridge on fiddle. Bruce Mittle(ph), lead guitar. Acoustic guitar, John Giorgio(ph). Background vocals, Dorsey Vanderhall(ph). Drums, Eric Northern. Bass, Brian Fox. And keyboard, Mr. Arthur Leasy(ph).

MARTIN: Thank you all for coming.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: I did point out that you're one of the first African-Americans to make a name for yourself in country music after Charlie Pride. And he used to make these jokes, which I don't know how you felt about it, about his permanent tan and that kind of thing. I mean today it's kind of cringe-worthy. You think, oh man, you know, why did you have to go there? But did you ever feel that sort of tension, a sense that you were not fully accepted or skepticism about your being in country because of your identity?

Dr. FRANCIS: Not really. I think I had more trouble being a doctor in country music. It's, you know, people get scared of doctors. They think we're carrying needles around to give them shots. I travel all across America, and England, and Scotland, and never did run into one racial incident that I would call a racial incident. I may have dropped in the medicine, but you know, but I try to sell the package that's I'm Cleve Francis. I'm a musician and I'm a doctor. And that's sometimes hard to sell.

MARTIN: You got a three-record deal on a major label and we were talking about that. But there, this has been written about, and I hope it's not painful to talk about, but you never really broke through after the second album. And I just wonder why you think that is?

Dr. FRANCIS: Well I don't think they knew really what to do with me. I thought really in the 1990s that the country was ready, but obviously they weren't. Some of them were. But I was looking in 1992 and I was at the CMA Awards and on television was the riots in LA and Rodney King. There was a lot of things happening and it was right out of OJ Simpson and I think the country was polarized because I would go to some of these radio stations, I'd walk in there and you could feel the tension, although I tried to break it, but it was there. I mean the country was polarized and I think they were not into a Barack Obama mood at that time. So I thought I would be satisfied just being a link in a chain for Darius Rucker or some people coming up because you know, I had my shot at it. I'm doing fine.

MARTIN: You are doing fine. So let's play something else.

Dr. FRANCIS: Right. Yes.

MARTIN: You still got your music. How about, let's see, you just played something up for us. How about, I don't know, make us cry.

Dr. FRANCIS: All right.

MARTIN: What you got for us?

Dr. FRANCIS: This next song, when I was in Tennessee, there was a lot of writings on bridges and I found this little song called "Two Names On An Overpass," so I'm going to sing that for you.

Dr. FRANCIS: (singing) When Providence Road crosses I-54, there on the outskirts of town, he made a testament to their love the only way he knew how. Armed with a can of red aerosol paint, trusting his life to that rope around his waist, dangling above westbound passing lane wrote, Jimmy Lee loves Becky Brown. Two names on an overpass, death defying feat of love. To this day every time she drive passed she's taken back when she looks up. It was just her and him. Things were so simple then. All you needed to prove love would last were two names on an overpass. It was just her and him. Things were so simple then. All you needed to prove love would last were two names on an overpass. Two names on an overpass.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: "Two Names On An Overpass" from "Storytime: Live At The Birchmere." I'm wondering how you remember the people whose backs are breaking from overtime and the mom who's got two kids. You know, who just are sort of drowning in it. And I'm just thinking your life is different. You've had two lives already.


MARTIN: Both that a lot of people can't even imagine. And I'm just wondering how you remember what that's like?

Dr. FRANCIS: Oh just being a citizen of the world, you know, being human. It's empathy. I use it a lot in my practice. You know, you have to feel empathetic you know toward people. But these stories about everyday people, I'm sure as I was singing that, somebody was thinking, you know, having a tough time and here on this bridge is the symbol that was written a long time ago and how he felt about her. And that's kind of what country music is about. They're about stories. And the new album, "Storytime," is an illustration of that and all these things are sort of self-contained little soap operas, so I like that.

MARTIN: You ever write songs that kind of draw on your medical knowledge like, eat less read meat, stop smoking?

(Soundbite of laughter)


(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FRANCIS: I should start writing that.

MARTIN: There were some messages. I thought there were some coded messages in this one. In fact, my personal favorite it was "Never Been A Honky Tonk," which is, basically says, you're not going to feel better so don't even bother. But kind of bad for business though since you...

Dr. FRANCIS: That's right.

MARTIN: ...do a lot of work in clubs. I don't know. You ever sing for your patients who are…

Dr. FRANCIS: Well some of them come to my concerts but I don't sing in the, you know, waiting room or nothing like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Could be an icebreaker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FRANCIS: But you know it...

MARTIN: I hope not to be needing your services, but if I do I'm...

Dr. FRANCIS: But it's very interesting. I had a fellow who I must have run into him on the road somewhere when I was on tour, but he was on a motorbike traveling through, you know, through the area and had some chest pain and actually remembered that I was at Mount Vernon Hospital and drove his motorbike to the hospital. He was having a heart attack. And he said, I think Cleve Francis works here. They said, well you know he's not singing. I don't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FRANCIS: ... but people have accepted this of me because I don't pretend to be, you know, not what you know I'm not…

MARTIN: Right. That's what said, if anything goes wrong, you right there. You can help him out.

Dr. FRANCIS: That's right.

MARTIN: And what shall we go out on?

Dr. FRANCIS: We're going to go out with a little Steve Goodman, "City of New Orleans."

MARTIN: "City of New Orleans." Dr. Cleve Francis is a country music singer. In his other life he's a cardiologist here in the Washington, D.C. area. He was kind enough to join us with his band right here at Studio 4A in our Washington, D.C. studios. Cleve Francis, friends, thank you all so much for joining us.

Dr. FRANCIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: To hear more songs by the music doctor or the medical musician, whatever you want to call Cleve Francis, and hundreds more studio sessions by musicians, please check out our music website. Just go to NPR.org and click on music.

Dr. FRANCIS: (singing) Riding on the city of New Orleans. Illinois Central, Monday morning rail. Fifteen cars, fifteen restless riders, three conductors, twenty-five sacks of mail. Good morning America, how are you? Yeah, don't you know me? I'm your native son. I'm a train they call the city of New Orleans. I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

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