Ken Schoppmeyer, RIP King Biscuit

by Michael Kinsman on September 1, 2010

Nobody seems to have a good handle on how many people passed through the King Biscuit Blues Band, which was launched in 1966 by some San Diego kids who wanted to play real blues.

Some people estimate there were more than 100 members of King Biscuit; some say 150.  Others say it could total as many as 300 people.

But Ken Schoppmeyer was always there, from 1966 to 1986. And, during those years, King Biscuit was the king of the hill of the San Diego blues community.

Schoppmeyer’s death came to light Tuesday. He committed suicide in an Oceanside hotel room over the weekend, but further information is sketchy. He was 60.

“I’m just trying to find out the facts myself,” said Paul Cowie, a talented guitarist who helped shape King Biscuit and was one of those who came and went with the group. He remained Schoppmeyer’s best pal.

Schoppmeyer grew up in Clairemont and for some reason took a deep interest in the blues in the early 1960s when most San Diego kids were listening to surf guitar and British rock bands.

“He would hear the Rolling Stones do a blues song and he’d say, ‘That’s not a blues band,’” said Mike Fields, a longtime friend. “It wasn’t that he disliked the Rolling Stones, but it was because he didn’t feel the band was doing it right. Kenny was a blues man.”

Oceanside filmmaker Mike Sosebee interviewed Schoppmeyer last spring for his upcoming documentary “San Diego Gives Me the Blues” that explores the growth of blues in San Diego over the decades.

In the interview, Schoppmeyer recalls going to a junior high school friend’s house, where he heard a 45-rpm version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.”

“It was my first real exposure to Chicago blues,” Schoppmeyer said in the interview. “There was something about Howlin’ Wolf. The hairs just came up on the back of your head. It was really a turning point for me to hear that.”

Schoppmeyer’s interest in the blues led him to eventually write Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf at Chess Records in Chicago.  Howlin’ Wolf answered one of those letters and said he wanted to meet Schoppmeyer when he came back through town. The meeting eventually did happen.

King Biscuit’s desire to play blues led the teenagers to open for acts such as B.B. King, Albert King and Bobby Blue Bland, in San Diego venues that were filled with African-Americans.

As a bandleader, Schoppmeyer was known as a taskmaster and perfectionist.

“He had a real specific sound he was looking for,” Cowie recalled. “He didn’t always say it in the most tactful way, but he knew what he wanted.”

Schoppmeyer was notorious for going through musicians in King Biscuit.

“Everybody seems to have a story about how they were fired by Kenny,” Fields said. “He could be abrasive and wasn’t as tactful as he might have been, but if he stepped on your toe to get what he wanted, that’s the way it was.”

Despite that, Schoppmeyer was widely appreciated for his talent as a musician and bandleader.  His harmonica playing was a direct link to the Chicago blues and his voice was pure and powerful.

“Not being as tactful as he could have been is about the worst thing you can say about him,” Fields said. “He knew what he wanted and he had an ear. You can’t deny that.”

Saxophonist Jonny Viau spent eight years with King Biscuit and thinks that Schoppmeyer’s perfectionist attitude kept him from ever being happy.

“He was always finding faults to what he was hearing on stage,” he said. “It was like he couldn’t match what he was hearing in his head.”

Still, Ken’s drive inspired Viau and others. Viau counts his time with King Biscuit as the one of the best experiences of a musical career that continues today.

“When I first joined KBB, Ken was the only one who saw something in me that nobody, (even myself) saw,” Viau said. “If they were to have taken a vote at that time I would have been history in the first six months. But since Ken was the leader he allowed me to remain, and that gave me the incentive to really try my best to improve.”

During the life of the band, King Biscuit was one of the biggest local bands, playing regular weekend gigs to packed houses. In 1984, it was the first band to play the first Street Scene, Rob Hagey’s eclectic music and arts festival.

In addition to being  talented musician, Schoppmeyer was a blues historian. Through his friendships and band leadership, he guided many people through their journey through the blues.

Today, most of the blues bands in San Diego either have a former King Biscuit member in the mix, or they were tutored by them. In that sense, Schoppmeyer had a dramatic impact on blues in his hometown.

For all his talent, Schoppmeyer rarely toured. He did go to Germany and South America, as well as a tour through the western U.S., but for the most part, he stayed close to home. He had a steady job at United Parcel Service and had family responsibilities that kept him in town.

The past year had been tumultuous for Schoppmeyer. After completing a new CD with the band, Delta Heat, Schoppmeyer moved to Uruguay and Ecuador with his wife, Jan, only to grow uneasy in the rural town they had emigrated to. He returned to the United States, spending some time in the central Washington town of Chelan at a ranch Cowie shares with his mother.

He recently returned to San Diego. Fields saw him two weeks ago playing with Delta Heat.

“I was having such a good time, I stayed for three sets,” he said. “Ken was in a great mood and we were laughing and just having a great time.”

Last Tuesday, Schoppmeyer attended a birthday dinner for his daughter Lindsey, with family and friends. “He joked and talked about upcoming gigs,” a former wife, Rosemary, said. “There was no sign that he was anything but normal and didn’t seem to be under any distress.”

But days later, the Ken Schoppmeyer obits would be written.

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