Guitar and commemorative albums are part of UofSC's KISS collection.

KISS collection comes to University Libraries

When John Downs Jr. was 17, he and his brother drove from their home in Charleston to Columbia, where they squeezed into the top row of the Carolina Coliseum and watched his favorite rock band — KISS.

Downs’ love affair with the band, known for its costumes, face paint, pyrotechnics and masterful marketing, has lasted more than four decades. In those years Downs, a Charleston business owner, has amassed a collection of KISS memorabilia that includes guitars, photographs, original artwork and costumes.

And that collection now belongs to the University of South Carolina.

Downs and his wife, Margaret Norris Downs, offered the more than 400-piece collection to University Libraries after learning of the university’s acquisition of the Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection.

“I’m almost 62. I had all this KISS stuff in a closet in my house,” Downs says. “I worked my whole life putting it together. I want to keep it together.”

University Libraries assured him it would do just that — and it would display some of the 26 guitars that were originally owned by the band, signed photographs and other memorabilia. Plans are underway for a large display case in the School of Music Library to hold the KISS collection.

A student or faculty member doing research in contemporary American music can go in the library and we can hand them a guitar that belonged to KISS.

Tom McNally, University Libraries dean

Libraries Dean Tom McNally said special collections, whether it is the works of Ernest Hemingway or a one-of-a-kind guitar from a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band, help attract scholars and students to the university. 

“A student or faculty member doing research in contemporary American music can go in the library and we can hand them a guitar that belonged to KISS,” McNally says. “We try hard not to be a library that locks its stuff away — we want people to see it. More importantly, we want kids to grab hold of that guitar and see what it feels like. Or even plug the thing in and play it.”

KISS, founded in 1973 by Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley, continues to tour. The band also travels on KISS Kruises, where thousands of fans can interact with their musical and marketing idols on a cruise ship on the open seas.

Downs was on one of those cruises when he saw one of Simmons’ managers wheeling a cart of guitars down the ship’s hallway. He explained the band would be doing “meet-and-greets” with fans and that guitars would be offered for sale. Downs bought one and had the chance to meet Simmons.

That started his friendship with Simmons that has lasted for decades. Downs even arranged to donate a bass guitar from Simmons to the Smithsonian museum, where it is now housed.

“Dreams do come true if you work hard for it,” Downs says.

While  Downs is a University of Georgia graduate, his daughter is a student in UofSC’s School of Music. He’s thrilled that his collection will soon have a home in the school’s library.

 “I was a little sad when the trucks [from University Libraries] drove away, but it’s going to a better home, and now people are actually going to be able to see it,” he says. “All I want is for people to see and appreciate it. And if it helps USC, even better.”

Downs also hopes other collectors and musicians will follow his lead and donate items to the university for display, teaching or research.

“A college education needs to include moments that you’ll never forget,” says McNally, the Libraries dean. “I can guarantee you that a student who studies contemporary American music or guitars, who can come in and hold and play one of these guitars — that’s a moment they’ll never forget.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about