Many song writers and singers have penned and vocalized musical testaments to the heart. From country ballads to jazz laments, from soaring delight to lonely desperation. But few have simultaneously known both the physical and emotional qualities of that human fuel pump as Cleveland “Cleve” Francis Jr., M.D.
Renowned in both the fields of cardiology and music, Cleve Francis, the self taught musician, and Dr. Cleveland Francis, president of Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates, are permanently intertwined for the betterment of life, whether that be for an individual patient or a downtrodden people trapped in an seemingly endless cycle of poverty. His is the music and talent of hope and regeneration.
Born and raised in Cajun country near Jennings, La. — near New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz — young Cleve Francis became absorbed by the music he heard coming from the radio. But without any musical instrument, he could only dream of the songs trapped in his soul.
When he was 8-years old he got up the courage to ask his mother for a guitar. In their financial circumstances, at that time in rural Louisiana, it was no small request.
However, his mother saw a dual opportunity. She agreed to buy the guitar if he promised to do all his homework and study very hard. She knew that the only way out of the poverty and segregation of the deep south at that time was through higher education, according to Francis.
“I’ve been playing music publicly since I was nine. It took her a year to save up enough money to buy me a Silvertone guitar from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue,” Francis said.
Cleve also upheld his part of the bargain. Following high school graduation he enrolled in Southern University in Baton Rouge. From there he went to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., for his masters degree in biology. Then it was off to the Medical College of Virginia and finally a residency at George Washington Medical Center.
HOWEVER, FROM THE TIME he got that first guitar, Cleve Francis, the natural born musical talent, was perfecting the alter ego of Dr. Cleveland Francis. First, as a child he became the accompanying guitarist for a local gospel quartet in Jennings known as “MidSouth Spiritual Singers.”
Not given to a single focus, young Francis also played tuba in his high school band and served as musical director of its chorus. This all lead to a blending of vocal, writing and playing talent that has paralleled his successful medical career creating fans and grateful patients alike.
One of those grateful patients is his friend of nearly 25 years Marty LaVor. An award winning photojournalist and sounding board for Francis in his quest to balance the dual desire of successful physician with that of successful musical talent.
“Cleve saved my life twice as a cardiologist. He’s a very good doctor and if he had never done anything else in his life except be a physician he would be recognized for his excellence,” said LaVor, who took a hobby, photography, and turned it into career after retiring from a career as a teacher and Congressional aid.
“It was in college that I met Dr. Huel Perkins who was head of the music department. He always challenged his students by asking ‘What do you bring to this university?’” Francis explained.
Francis’ answer was that he played the guitar and sang. Perkins asked for a demonstration and set up a 20-minute appointment to hear what Francis had to offer.
That session went from 20 minutes to all day and ended with Perkins purchasing a new guitar for this young talent who was still using the Silvertone purchased by his mother.
In addition to replacing Francis’ aging, cracked guitar, Perkins encouraged and sponsored the young pre-med student’s first formal concert before a group on university music majors.
Thus was officially launched the dualism of “Cleve” the musician/singer and Dr. Cleveland Francis, the equally talented physician.
“We are doing everything from country to blues to jazz to gospel. We don’t follow any specific formula. We perform for the fans,” he said.
The “we” is his 11-piece band and mass choir directed by Ethel Bothuel of First Baptist Church of Vienna. On Saturday, Oct. 14, they will perform a benefit concert at Rachel M. Schlesinger Hall and Arts Center in Alexandria for the Community Coalition for Haiti.
Proceeds of that concert will go to support projects in that impoverished nation such as Hospital Bienfaisance de Pignon, a 60-bed facility serving 160,000 Haitians. Cleve’s newest album will be formally released at that concert.
“Storytime — Live At The Birchmere — Cleve Francis & Friends,” is 130 minutes of music by 11 musicians, according to Francis.
“We had a total recording of our appearance at the Birchmere on April 14,” he said.
His appearances at The Birchmere, which began in the mid 1980s, are just a fragment of Cleve Francis’ personal/music journey. It has taken him not only on national and world tours but also on journeys of the soul and heart for such causes as AIDs, Vietnam Veterans, civil rights, Black Country Music Association, and relief efforts here and in Haiti.
His national exposure occurred as a result of coincidental circumstances. Dr. Cleveland Francis, cardiologist, was treating a patient at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital when he was introduced to his patient’s brother, “Big John Hall,” formerly a member of the 1950s rhythm and blues group, “The Heart Beats.” Life is stranger than fiction, or at least more ironic.
After getting to know one another during the brother’s recovery, the friendship led to Francis meeting Jimmy Bowen, president, Capital Nashville Records. That, in turn, led to a new album, “Last Call for Love” and a professionally produced music video that won Music Row Magazine’s independent Video of the Year Award.
Then came a three record deal which triggered a nationwide country radio tour plus a myriad television appearance and media interviews. All the while Francis was practicing medicine at his Mount Vernon office. It soon became clear that if he was going to fully explore the possibilities of a full-blown musical career Cleve Francis would have to take a leave of absence from Dr. Cleveland Francis. With the consent of his medical practice partners he did just that in 1992.
Although thousands of fans welcomed him at every stop, after two years of non-stop barnstorming, it was time to take stock. In 1994 Dr. Cleveland Francis returned to his medical practice following the release of his last Capitol CD, “You’ve Got Me Now.”
“Even though there was no breakaway hit during that period, I’m so happy I had the opportunity to do the touring. If I hadn’t done it I would have always wondered,” Francis said.
LaVor buttressed that conclusion. “When he went to Nashville he needed a sounding board and I served in that role. Leaving his medical practice also meant leaving any income. He financed that time on his own. But, it also made him very comfortable as a performer. He was good when he went to Nashville but he’s 100 times better now,” LaVor said.
DR. CLEVELAND Francis has served as president of Inova Mount Vernon Hospital’s medical staff and is now president of Inova Health System’s Medical Affairs Council. IHS staff will be taking part in the Oct. 14 concert at Schlesinger Concert Hall to help raise funds for the Community Coalition for Haiti.
Cleve Francis and Dr. Cleveland Francis seemed to have always merged and reflected the ambitions and talents of each other. In the 1980s as his musical talents were gaining increasing acclaim he used that to further two causes — AIDs education and awareness and the needs of Vietnam era veterans.
In conjunction with IHS, he wrote and co-produced “We’re All In This Together” with fellow musician Arthur Lisi. Recorded in several languages, Cleve performed the song with a children’s choir before a meeting of the World Health Organization in Washington, D.C. It has become a standard by health organizations fighting the spread of AIDs.
Perhaps one of his most poignant compositions is “Reflections On The Wall” written to accompany a photograph by LaVor of reflections on the Vietnam Memorial. Cleve’s poetic lament captures the essence of those fallen warriors’ sacrifice and patriotism “coupled with a melancholy melody.”
His finished product was presented to Jan Scruggs, spearhead of the Vietnam Memorial. In 1987 Cleve performed his song at The Wall during Memorial Day observances.
That same dedication was brought to his work, “Martin,” honoring Dr. Martin Luther King which he wrote and co-produced with Moses Dillard. It was later used as the centerpiece of his CD “March On,” co-produced by Warner Brothers and the Memphis Civil Rights Museum.
It’s been a long and fascinating journey for that 9-year-old boy with a Silvertone guitar from his mother who required him to work hard and do his homework. That he has in both embodiments — as Dr. Cleveland Francis and as “Cleve” Francis — he makes sure the beat goes on.