Dr. Elvis Francois was all but destined to do something musical. Just before he was born, his mother had a vivid dream that she was at an Elvis concert with her son, whom she had originally planned to call Gregory. That name quickly went out the window.
“Thank God she wasn’t a Bon Jovi fan, because ‘Bon Jovi Francois’ would be a little rough,” says Francois, an orthopedic-surgery resident who has gained notoriety for singing to his patients at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Last week, he released the four-song EP Music Is Medicine with fellow resident Dr. William Robinson, who accompanies Francois on piano. With a collection of covers including John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” the EP was the 16th-biggest seller via digital album sales, according to Alpha Data, the data analytics provider that powers the Rolling Stone Charts.
“It’s been a humbling past few weeks,” Francois says, calling shortly after a surgery. “Dr. Robinson and I have been sharing music with patients over the last few years. You can perform perfect surgery and prescribe appropriate medication, but if someone is broken on the inside, music can go places that medicine can’t. It heals people in ways that medication simply can’t.”
That message and Francois’s online videos resonated with two executives at Nashville’s Big Machine Label Group — Jake Basden and Allison Jones — who reached out to the doctors on a personal mission to help get them into a studio. (The independent Music Is Medicine is not a Big Machine release.) “They’re angels,” Francois says of his surprise producers.
A few days after their call, the surgeons were in Rochester’s Carpet Booth Studios cutting “Imagine” and “Lean on Me,” along with Mike Yung’s “Alright” and Andra Day’s “Rise Up.” The R&B singer’s inspiring lyrics — “I’ll rise like the day … I’ll rise unafraid” — are a regular in the Robinson’s rotation.
“The lyrics speak to finding ways to overcome any situation, and many of the patients we see are going through unspeakable difficulties. Trying to find ways to help them with those words sometimes goes further than the formal doctor-patient relationship,” he says.
He uses Withers’ “Lean on Me,” an anthem for any kind of crisis, to bridge generational gaps. “If we’re in the pediatric unit, we’ll get the kids to sing along, and if we’re in ICU, adults love it as well,” he says. “The beauty of that song is in its simplicity, but also in its depth.”
Francois isn’t bidding for American Idol-like stardom with Music Is Medicine. He and Robinson are using the project to support their colleagues working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as everyday citizens who are struggling during quarantine. Proceeds from the EP support the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund.
“When we were thinking about what to do with this opportunity we’ve been given, we wanted to find a way to help our colleagues. We’re specializing to be surgeons, but some of our colleagues are in the emergency departments and ICU,” Francois says. “We also want to help people who are vulnerable in the population: those who lost their jobs or whose children can’t get meals from school.”
Francois has been bolstered by the all-hands-on-deck mentality he’s seen in his fellow health care workers at the Mayo Clinic. Some doctors and nurses are working extra shifts, while others are learning a new skill to help out in departments that may not be theirs. That sense of unity leaves him confident about the future after COVID-19.
“It’s the first time in a generation where the entire world is facing the same exact problem. It’s very clear to all of us that we’re going to get through this; it’s only a matter of time,” he says. “This is an opportunity for us to be better. We’re going to get through it to the other side, but what does the other side look like?” He is sure of one thing: It’ll involve music.