Posted on: September 21, 2021; Updated on: September 21, 2021
By Megan Sexton, [email protected], 803-777-1421
When John Downs Jr. was 17, he and his brother drove from their Charleston home to Columbia, where they snuck into the top row of the Carolina Coliseum and watched his favorite rock band – KISS.
Downs’ love affair with the band, known for their costumes, face painting, fireworks and masterful marketing, spanned more than four decades. During these years, Downs, owner of a Charleston business, amassed a collection of KISS memorabilia including guitars, photographs, original artwork and costumes.
And this collection now belongs to the University of South Carolina.
Downs and his wife, Margaret Norris Downs, donated the collection of more than 400 pieces to university libraries after learning of the university’s acquisition of the Gary Lee Watson comic collection.
“I’m almost 62. I had all this KISS stuff in a closet in my house,” says Downs. “I’ve worked my whole life to ride it. I want to keep it together.
University libraries assured him that was exactly what he would do – and that he would display some of the 26 guitars that originally belonged to the band, signed photographs and other memorabilia. Plans are underway for a large display case in the music school library to contain the KISS collection.
A student or faculty member researching contemporary American music can come to the library and we can present them with a guitar that belonged to KISS.
Tom McNally, Dean of University Libraries
The Dean of Libraries Tom McNally said the special collections, whether it’s works by Ernest Hemingway or a one-off guitar from a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band, help attract academics and university students.
“A student or faculty member researching contemporary American music can go to the library and we can give them a guitar that belonged to KISS,” McNally explains. “We strive not to be a library that locks down its documents – we want people to see it. Most importantly, we want the kids to grab this guitar and see what it looks like. Or even plug in the thing and play it.
KISS, founded in 1973 by Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley, continues its tour. The group also travels to KISS Kruises, where thousands of fans can interact with their musical and marketing idols on a cruise ship on the high seas.
Downs was on one of those cruises when he saw one of Simmons’ managers roll a cart of guitars down the hallway of the ship. He explained that the band would do “meet and greet” fans and that guitars would be offered for sale. Downs bought one and was lucky enough to meet Simmons.
This began his friendship with Simmons which lasted for decades. Downs even arranged to donate a Simmons bass guitar to the Smithsonian Museum, where it is now located.
“Dreams come true if you work hard for it,” says Downs.
While Downs graduated from the University of Georgia, his daughter was a student at the UofSC School of Music. He is delighted that his collection will soon have its place in the school library.
“I was a little sad when the trucks [from University Libraries] is gone, but he’s going to a better house, and now people are going to be able to see him, ”he said. “All I want is people to see it and like it. And if that helps USC, even better.
Downs also hopes other collectors and musicians will follow his example and donate items to the university for exhibition, teaching or research.
“A college education should include times you will never forget,” says McNally, Dean of Libraries. “I can assure you that a student studying contemporary American music or guitars, who can come in and play any of those guitars, this is a moment they will never forget.”
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Subjects: Alumni, Collections, School of Music, University Libraries