When Harmon Lewis graduated from Millsaps College in 1962 with a bachelor's degree in organ, he never dreamed of a career as a globe-trotting musician. Nor did he envision being a part of a best- selling recording duo in Japan or being invited to perform for the Japanese emperor and empress at the Royal Palace in Tokyo.
With an excellent foundation from Millsaps in music as well as liberal arts, Lewis relied on hard work and two other key ingredients in building a successful career in music.
"You have to put yourself in the right place and meet the right people," he advises. "That would be my advice to today's Millsaps students, regardless of their major."
The right place for Lewis was Indiana University, where he met double bassist Gary Karr in the early 1970s. Lewis was pursuing a doctor of music degree, and Karr was a well-known concert artist serving on the summer faculty.
"I already had a master's degree from Indiana and had taught at Centre College in Kentucky for four years," said Lewis, an accomplished pianist, organist, and harpsichordist. "Once I got my doctorate, I thought I would probably teach for the rest of my life."
His career path quickly changed once he and Karr partnered on the stage.
"Gary doesn't play a bass like anyone else," Lewis said. "The uniqueness of Gary as a performer and the way we perform together led us to form the Karr-Lewis Duo."
Well-received performances in North America led to appearances in Great Britain, Europe, Russia, Israel, South America, New Zealand and Australia.
Harmon Lewis and Gary Karr
In 1980 they began regular concert tours of Japan, where their recordings were runaway favorites and remain best sellers. "The Japanese are extremely sensitive to music. They like the way Gary and I communicate through our music," Lewis said.
Musicians worldwide enjoy playing Japan because the Japanese love music and the audiences there are astute, he said.
"There is a concert hall in every city of any size," he noted. "Music is a priority there."
One of the biggest honors the Karr-Lewis duo has received is to perform for the Japanese royal family. They have played at formal events at the Royal Palace in Tokyo as well as informal dinners where the empress, a pianist, performed with them. On a recent visit to Victoria, British Columbia, the emperor and empress accepted an invitation and came to the Karr-Lewis house for a visit.
Whether Lewis is performing for royalty or in his hometown of Tylertown, Miss., one special person often comes to mind. He traces his musical roots to his maternal grandmother, who pined for music lessons as a child.
"My grandmother's family could not afford piano lessons, but she vowed that when she had children of her own, there would be money for music even if it meant giving up something else," he said. He notes proudly that his mother and her six siblings received music lessons when they were growing up, and all of their children have had that same opportunity.
For Lewis, piano lessons began at age seven.
"I learned to play the organ by reading everything I could and studying on my own, but it wasn't until I entered Millsaps that I took lessons," he said. "The best learning often is the learning we gain from pursuing an interest.Continuing organ study at Indiana University gave me an even more solid background."
Millsaps College got his attention when the Millsaps Singers performed on tour at Tylertown United Methodist Church, where his family attended. He knew he wanted to go to Millsaps and be a member of the Millsaps Singers. "It turned out I was a horrible singer, but I did become the choir accompanist," he said.
Lewis said Millsaps prepared him well for a career that took unexpected twists and turns.
"I got a good foundation in music from Professors Jack Sweat, Leland Byler and Donald Kilmer," he said. "I also got practical experience in performing as a chamber musician on campus and in the community, and I had a church job all four years at Millsaps. In addition, Mary Taylor Sigman, the organist at Galloway Memorial Church, was a stronger influence on me than she probably ever knew. Whenever I could, I attended Galloway and watched her carefully from the balcony."
The heart of the Millsaps experience for him, however, was his liberal arts education.
"In the English classes, I read books I would have never read otherwise. I studied philosophy, took German and was also exposed to French. Above all, Millsaps made me aware that there was a world outside Mississippi and the United States, and I was ready to explore it to the fullest. I was lucky enough in my choice of career to do just that."
Lewis' younger brothers, Robert ("Bobby") and Donald, followed in his footsteps, also choosing Millsaps.
From time to time during Lewis' four decades of travel with the Karr-Lewis Duo, Millsaps alumni have come backstage after a performance to introduce themselves.
"I have always enjoyed meeting other alums and talking about people we know in common, usually teachers," he said. "I really have a lot of wonderful memories from my life, and particularly my Millsaps days."
Twice Karr and Lewis have been invited to perform concerts at Millsaps. "Both of those times were wonderful experiences," he noted.
The Karr-Lewis Duo played its final public concert about a decade ago. Lewis now resides in Victoria, British Columbia, and with Karr has embarked on a major project of recording the works they have transcribed and performed in concert during the past 30 years.
Karr said of his partner, "Often after our concerts audience members have told us that 'Harmon and I seem to breathe and think together like one.' Nothing is more satisfying in the pursuit of the language of music than finding someone with whom you can share thoughts and feelings in an intimate way. It was fortuitous when I met Harmon more than four decades ago, and I cannot imagine how my life could have achieved the high level of fulfillment without him."
The Rev. Don Fortenberry, retired chaplain at Millsaps and a former classmate, recalls Lewis' superb musicianship as a student. "Tones of Harmon playing the Widor Toccata (from Widor's Symphony for Organ No. 5) on the organ still echo in my mind," he said.
One of Fortenberry's fondest recent memories is Lewis and Karr performing at Tylertown United Methodist Church to honor Lewis' parents.
"Folks from the area dressed in business suits and Sunday best sat beside others dressed in overalls, and everyone was drawn into Harmon and Gary's engaging musicianship colored with a comedic style," he said. "I, like so many, have been enriched by a personal relationship to Harmon and by the vicarious enjoyment of his international achievement and have been so gratified that he is a Millsaps graduate."
To hear the Karr-Lewis Duo and learn more about Gary Karr and Harmon Lewis, visit www.garykarr.com.