The black American conductor, Henry Lewis, began studying piano at the age of five and later learned to play the clarinet as well as several string instruments. After six years as a double-bassist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, he played (double-bass) with and conducted (in Germany and the Netherlands) the Seventh Army Symphony while serving in the United States Armed Forces (1955-1956). After returning to the USA, he founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. In 1963 he travelled with it in Europe under the auspices of the State Department. He gained national recognition in 1961 when he was appointed assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta, a post he held until 1965.
During a music career that spanned nearly five decades, Henry Lewis gained wide respect as a conductor, instrumentalist, and pioneer in the classical music world. In 1968 he became the first black to head a major American orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and in 1972 he debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera, conducting Puccini's La Boheme.
After serving as a guest conductor of major symphony orchestras in the USA and abroad, Henry Lewis moved to Newark, New Jersey, where in 1968 he became conductor and music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, a small community ensemble. He transformed the ensemble into a nationally recognized orchestra that annually performed more than a hundred concerts, including outreach programs for local communities. From 1960 to 1979 he was married to famed opera singer Marilyn Horne, who considered him her ‘teacher and right hand’. After retiring from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in 1976, he conducted opera and orchestra guest engagements. From 1989 to 1991 he was chief conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hilversum. He continued to tour as a guest conductor until his death from a heart attack at the age of 63.