ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Has Cleve Francis caught the middle-age crazies or what?
"Not really," says Dr. Francis, a 46-year-old, black cardiologist who is taking time off from his suburban medical practice to take a shot at becoming a country music star.
"I've been doing this since I was 8 years old, singing back in Louisiana," recalled Dr. Francis. "I was involved in music before I went to medical school."
But why this down-home sound of steel guitars and fiddles?
"I grew up around it. People always ask me 'How'd you get into country music, being a black man?' But we grew up in rural Louisiana in the country and that's really all you heard on the DTC radio -- blues, country, Cajun music," explained Dr. Francis.
Between patient appointments, Dr. Francis is sitting in his office near Mount Vernon Hospital, only a few miles from George Washington's home beside the Potomac River. One office wall is full of diplomas -- including graduate degrees from the College of William and Mary and the Medical College of Virginia. Other walls display mementos from his fledgling music career -- the biggest being a framed poster of his upcoming debut album on a major label.
Having fulfilled one American dream, Dr. Francis is closing in on another.
His album, "Tourist in Paradise," is being shipped to retail stores today by Liberty Records, the Nashville subsidiary of Capitol-EMI Music, Inc. The release is being trumpeted by what Billboard Magazine called "one of the largest marketing and promotional campaigns for a new artist" ever by the record label.
In a well-orchestrated media blitz, Dr. Francis is scheduled to appear on the NBC-TV "Today Show" on April 3 and to follow that with a month of visits to radio stations around the country. He has been profiled in USA Today and interviewed by People and Jet magazines. He will sing at Nashville's Fan Fair and chat with country music's premier talk show hosts, Ralph Emery and Crook & Chase.
Country music has had only black star -- Charley Pride -- but industry executives figure Dr. Francis might also someday make it to the Grand Ol' Opry.
"We believe in his music," said Joe Mansfield of Liberty Records. Indeed, the company is promoting "major campaigns with Wal-Mart and Kmart" and a "buy it, try it" deal where listeners can get their money back if they don't like the doctor's songs.
There have been more than 100,000 advance orders for the album, said Mr. Mansfield. "For a new artist, 25,000 would be really nice. And this is four times as many."
Dr. Francis marvels that "it sounds like a fairy tale."
Still, he is easing into a musical career, keeping an association with his cardiology group.
"We're just taking this a step at a time," he said.