Long before he found fame as a blues musician, Curtis St. Cyr played harmonica for a teenage garage band called the Scrubs.
Darlakae McGhee was the combo’s keyboardist and singer.
She remembers a talented but bashful Winnebago boy.
“He had a beautiful singing voice, but it was hard to really get him to sing at that time,” she said. “He was quite a musician, really, at a young age.”
As an adult, St. Cyr found his voice and gained notoriety playing harmonica and singing the blues alongside such greats as Smokey Robinson, Santana, the Allman Brothers, B.B. King and Chuck Berry. He even led his own band, Curt St. Cyr and the Kalico Kats
Curt St Cyr and The New World Blues Union: TRAMP (Lowell Fulsom Cover)
On Sunday, St. Cyr died suddenly at Twelve Clans Unity Hospital
in Winnebago. St. Cyr, 60, served as a tribal council member several times and was the Winnebago Tribe’s vice chairman at the time of his death. He also served on his tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Commission and Tax Commission.
In recent years, St. Cyr played a key role in the tribe’s takeover of a hospital from the Indian Health Service
“Issues related to mental health and substance abuse were particularly important to Curtis,” said Frank White, chairman of the Winnebago Tribe
is survived by wife Theresa, sons Garan Coons, Lewis St. Cyr and Gentry St. Cyr, and daughter Patricia Dominquez. A funeral service for St. Cyr was held Wednesday afternoon in Winnebago.
The Winnebago Tribe also was mourning the death this week of renowned activist Frank LaMere
, who died Sunday following a brief battle with bile duct cancer. LaMere and St. Cyr were both members of their tribe’s Bear Clan.
“I think that’s something that he gets to travel with one of his relatives,” Garan Coons said. “Two great leaders left us for the spirit world.”
Curt St. Cyr is seen with country music legend Willie Nelson in a photo shared on social media.
While a respected tribal leader, it was perhaps his musical career that brought St. Cyr the most attention.
St. Cyr played harmonica for Native blues band Indigenous
on the group’s 1998 celebrated “Things We Do” album
. He shared the stage with numerous famous musicians and might have been able to establish himself as a famous musician, his son said.
Instead, St. Cyr took a different path.
“Unselfishly, he put that stuff away, and he raised us,” Coons said.
As a child, Coons served as his father’s roadie, loading up his instruments and sound equipment for performances.
St. Cyr is the only musician to be able to boast being invited back to perform at the annual Saturday in the Park music festival in Sioux City, Iowa. In fact, St. Cyr had performed eight times at the festival.
That’s where Darlakae McGhee saw him several years ago.
“I heard this voice, and I didn’t know that he was going to be there singing,” she said. “I looked up and it’s the first time I ever heard him perform like that in my life. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew his voice was awesome.”
She ran down to the area in front of the stage and began waving at her old bandmate.
With John Trudell at Indian Summer Festival, Milwaukee WI. John and his band opened, with my band St.Cyr/Roulette closing the show!Posted by Curt St Cyr on Saturday, April 2, 2011
Later, St. Cyr got to listen to McGhee sing at a funeral in Winnebago. As she finished her song and began walking back to her seat, St. Cyr motioned for her to sit beside him.
“Just remember, you’re singing at my funeral,” he told her.
“Not if I die first, because you’ll be singing at mine,” she fired back.
McGhee – a mental health therapist who now serves the Winnebago people – said she was fortunate to grow up with a strong and supportive group of friends that included St. Cyr.
The group of friends all became successful in their chosen careers, and today they include a dentist, a computer technology specialist, a doctor, a nurse practitioner and an engineer.
And despite several moving away from Winnebago, the friends have kept in touch, McGhee said. When they learned about St. Cyr’s death, they began reaching out to each other again, sharing stories and humorous memories, she said.
She said she’ll always cherish their time playing music together as the Scrubs.
The group would usually practice in each other’s basements and garages. They would host dances for small groups of friends and once even held a concert in a community hall.
The group made a sign that read: “Concert tonight, the Scrubs. $2 admission.”
When it became obvious that nobody would be willing to pay the admission cost, the band crossed the “$2” out and wrote “$1,” then later “50 cents.”
“Pretty soon it was free because nobody is going to really pay to come and see us,” she said, laughing.
McGhee said she always knew St. Cyr would become a leader. While soft-spoken, he always said meaningful things.
“He was born to be a leader,” she said. “He’s a quiet, strong, intelligent man who became just this fair and honest and good leader for his tribe.”
“I just feel like we’ve really lost a great human being way too soon.”
Curt St.Cyr & The Kalico Kats: LIVE @ Riverfest 2013
Coons said his father worked to help his tribe take over the IHS hospital
in Winnebago, which was renamed the Twelve Clans Unity Hospital. He was a vocal opponent of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, a 1,179-mile project that would link the oil fields of Canada’s Alberta province to refineries in the United States. He was one of the signatories on a treaty cementing an alliance of 150 Canadian and American tribes that voiced opposition to the controversial pipeline.
St. Cyr also served as the lead singer for Winnebago drum group the HoChunk Singers, and advocated this year for having his tribe’s veterans organize the annual powwow, which is set for July 25-28
As the Winnebago Tribe’s public relations officer, Coons said he was privileged to be able to work in the same office as his father for the past four years.
“He just wanted to make sure to always be humble and to always take care of the people,” Coons said.
On Monday, after his father’s death, Coons walked into the tribal administration building, planning to write a press release about his father’s and LaMere’s deaths. But when he saw his father’s office, with his work papers and office supplies lying there just how he had left them a few days before, he turned around and walked back out.
“To see him work the last four years at that table, I really appreciated that and seeing the things he did for our community and our tribe,” Coons said. “It’s going to be a tough road.”
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Photo Album: Curt St.Cyr with musicians and friends
With Jackson Browne and Mato NajiPosted by Curt St Cyr on Saturday, April 2, 2011
with Blues harp player" Snooky Pryor"Posted by Curt St Cyr on Saturday, April 2, 2011
Playing with the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings at The Blues Cellar, Sioux City Ia.Posted by Curt St Cyr on Saturday, April 2, 2011
With the late great" Jimmy Rogers"Posted by Curt St Cyr on Saturday, April 2, 2011
With Rita Coolidge at Milwaukee Wi.Posted by Curt St Cyr on Saturday, April 2, 2011
Curt St Cyr and myself at The Brass Rail 2013Posted by Justin Cournoyer on Sunday, March 16, 2014
Jammin' with Native blues harp player Curt St Cyr 2013Posted by Justin Cournoyer on Sunday, March 16, 2014
Country and allies say goodbye to 'hero' Frank LaMere
(June 17, 2019)
activist Frank LaMere passes on at the age of 69
(June 17, 2019)