Charleston Collector Gives USC Library Extensive Collection of KISS Memorabilia

Feb 17, 2021

With their distinctive makeup and and personas and wild stage shows, few rock bands are as recognizable as KISS.  The group has attracted legions of fans over the last half-century.  John Downs of Charleston took his interest a step beyond fandom, and has amassed a collection of hundreds of items since 1977.  

Featuring more than 30 guitars and bass guitars played by the band's frontmen Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, plus records, autographed photos, backstage passes, marketing materials and more, the collection has been donated by Downs to the University of South Carolina's music library.  He said he recently realized he "couldn't take it with me," but he wanted to keep it together.  

"This is basically my lifetime collection," said Downs, "and I didn't want it to break up or get piecemealed out, so that's why I wanted this to be taken by somebody who would care for it and let future generations see it."

As with many donations to the University's libraries, Downs was drawn to USC when he heard of another major collection, the Gary Lee Watson Comic Book Collection, that had been gifted to the school's libraries.  So "I made a few phone calls," he said.  "I didn't know what kind of reception I was gonna get...when I called they were really enthusiastic about it, they were really interested in the collection, wanted to know everything about it.  I just saw a lot of enthusiasm, and that made me feel really good about donating this collection."

For her part, USC Associate Dean for Special Collections Elizabeth Sudduth was impressed with the breadth of Downs's collection.  "There are many guitars and basses that were played.  There were many axe models that were played by Gene Simmons (the bassist has had many instruments custom made to resemble medieval axes), they're very special.  But we also have guitars, we have one or two that have artwork by Ken Kelly, the comic book artist, on them.  There are wonderful photographs, and many of them are signed.  There is a fair amount of art by Paul Stanley, because he is also known as an artist."

Downs bought his guitars directly from the band members, whom he has gotten to know over the years.  Asked why musicians would sell so many of their instruments when many others collect and treasure them, he replied, "KISS are masters of marketing."  He assessed their attitude as  "So hey, you can play an instrument and somebody's gonna offer you money for it, more than you paid for it, and you're making a profit?  Sure, why not?  Plus, you're making a collector's or KISS fan's dream come true.  They actually get to own, in a way, a piece of their idol."

Music librarian Ana Dubnjakovic expects researchers to use the collection, though it what ways, she couldn't accurately predict.  "This is kind of borne out with our other collections.  And usually we are surprised when people come to us and ask for these items...in unexpected ways where we didn't necessarily predict that the collections would be used in that way.  But given the size and variety of the collection, I'm convinced that we will generate lots of research attention."

Sudduth agreed that the collection will draw researchers, and the topics they would be interested in could be as varied as the items in the collection itself.  "So here's an opportunity," she said.  "It could be someone perhaps interested in the business side of a rock band, because I think that you could look at how the band markets itself," echoing Downs's comments about how marketing-saavy the group is.  "So there's a lot in relation to the music, but also in relation to other aspects that are well represented in this collection."  

At some point the collection will be exhibited to the public at the music library, but a date - which will certainly be influenced, as everything else is, by the COVID pandemic - has not yet been determined. 

Downs said his love for KISS's music is undiminished by the passing of time.  He emphasized that just because he's donated his collection to the University does not mean he'll stop collecting.

"Won't stop collecting," he laughed.  "It's a fever.  I can't get it out of my system."   So he sees this mania continuing for life?  "Why not?  I love music.  I love KISS.  Why not?"