South Charlotte

Guitar hero from Rock Hill chosen for Winthrop award

Guitarist Johnny King played his first riffs on a homemade cat-gut-and-fishing-wire guitar more than a half-century ago in his hometown of Rock Hill before heading to New York City as a professional musician.

“I got my start here in Rock Hill, playing with the band director at the old Emmett Scott High School,” said King, 68, who returned to live in Rock Hill in 1989. “Growing up in the Carolinas, my roots are in gospel. It's good to be back where it all began for me.”

King, who recorded a gold record with the funk and disco group Fatback in 1979, will be recognized Friday – along with three other Carolinians – with the 7th Annual Medal of Honor in the Arts from Winthrop University.

The other recipients are: Michael Marsicano of Charlotte, president and CEO of the Foundation of the Carolinas; Vivian Ayers of Chester, a Pulitzer Prize nominee in poetry; and Philip Simmons of Charleston, a blacksmith recognized by the Smithsonian Institution.

The awards are the most prestigious given by Winthrop's College of Visual and Performing Arts. Previous winners include former Winthrop student and movie actress Andie MacDowell.

“We look for individuals who have made significant contributions to the arts and culture of our region – through their own art, their philanthropy, or leadership,” said Libby Patenaude, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “Quite often they are nationally known but have chosen to remain close to their roots and enrich our communities on both sides of the state border.”

Each of this year's recipients will receive a hand-crafted medal made by silversmith and former arts professor Alf Ward. The awards will be Friday night at Winthrop, along with performances.

More on the recipients:

Michael Marsicano. The New York native has helped raise millions for the arts and charities in the Charlotte region for two decades and has served as the former head of the Arts and Science Council. Since 1999, he has worked as president and CEO of the Foundation of the Carolinas, overseeing a staff of 50 with a $5.8 million annual budget. The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce named Marsicano as its 2008 Innovator of the Year. The Observer referred to him in a 2008 profile as “the most powerful person in Charlotte you've never heard of.” For the past two years, Marsicano has been invited to the Sundance Preserve with about 30 other public and private sector leaders to discuss national arts policy issues.

Vivian Ayers. Born in Chester, she graduated from high school at the Brainerd Institute in Chester in its last class in 1939. She and her family have bought 12 acres of the former campus and are working to preserve the remaining buildings of the school that began in 1866 for freed slaves. Trained as a librarian at Rice University, Ayers was granted faculty status there in 1965, becoming the first African American to do so. She was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1952 for her poetry. Ayers raised three children who are all accomplished in the performing arts – jazz musician Tex Allen; Tony-award winning actress Phylicia Rashad; and dancer Debbie Allen.

Philip Simmons. He was born near Charleston on Daniel Island in 1912 and moved to Charleston's east side, where he has had a home and shop ever since. He's recognized as one of the nation's foremost ironworkers – in 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him the National Heritage Fellowship, its highest award for a traditional artist. He has created more than 500 decorative pieces of ornamental iron that adorn the homes and gardens of some of Charleston's finest homes and oldest buildings – gates, fences, balconies and window grills. In 1976, he built a gate for the Smithsonian Institution and in 1987, for the S.C. State Museum in Columbia.