During his long career, he advanced the relatively new genre, publishing more than 300 songs, often deemed by admirers as the “king of the tear jerkers”.
Harris was born into a family of ten children. His father was a fur trader and moved the family to Saginaw, Michigan. His father became a general store owner and traded furs with the Indians in Saginaw, Michigan for a few years.Years later, Charles Harris remembered lumbermen coming into town wearing “large boots with cleats, sashes ‘round their waists and wide white hats.” He also recalled swimming at a spot they called “The Bend” and ice skating on the frozen river, Little Jake’s store and Academy of Music manager Sam Clay. One day, a pair of traveling vaudeville performers stopped into the tailor shop and, for some reason, put on an impromptu rehearsal of their banjo act. Harris watched every move and then cobbled together a banjo from an empty oyster can, a broomstick and some strands of wire and taught himself to play it. Impressed, one of the actors gave him a real banjo and Charles soon became an expert on it before the family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Charles grew up.
Harris’ obsession with musical theater made him a regular at the theaters around town and though he had no knowledge or instruction in music, began offering instruction on the banjo to others. His entire repertoire was the old minstrel tunes and soon everyone around him tired of them. He attempted to write some songs to remedy that problem but was met with laughter and scorn. From a practical point of view, Harris worked various odd jobs during this time, working as a bell hop and pawnbroker as well as other odd jobs.
Harris wrote for a Milwaukee amateur show, and although he did not receive any pay for them, they gave him a local reputation. Eventually he got an order from the Chicago Opera House to write three songs for “Sinbad the Sailor.” For this he was paid $150. At a performance of a play, “The Skating Rink” by Nat Goodwin he felt that the songs did not suit the play well and so the story goes, with a companion, Nat (Charles) Horowitz, he decided to write a song for the play, “Since Maggie Learned To Skate” in 1885.
Interestingly, the skate song was published by T.B. Harms in 1885 and was attributed completely to Horowitz. Perhaps Harris recognized that the song was not good and “generously” allowed Horowitz to take credit, but from this inauspicious beginning, Harris decided that writing songs for specific shows or occasions was a good method and he began pestering actors, producers and managers with ideas for songs. He had trouble getting his music published and discovered that unscrupulous printers took advantage of composers.
One of the first songwriters to establish themselves as a publisher as well, at the tender age of 18, Harris established his own publishing company under the identity Charles K. Harris Publishing Co. at 207 Grand Avenue in Milwaukee that had been vacated by another music firm, A.A. Fisher. His rent was $7.50 per month and he dared to hang out a shingle that proclaimed: “Charles K. Harris – Banjoist and Songwriter – Songs Written To Order”. Harris later set up firms in Chicago and New York. He continued to write special material for vaudeville acts and later for silent films. Harris became a go-getting businessman, another Victorian ideal. As a young songwriter, he had trouble getting in to see the actors and actresses who might be interested in using his ballads. He got a job as correspondent for a New York dramatic publication and found that opened doors for him. Opera diva Adelina Patti was just one of the stars who performed his works: a song called “Her Last Farewell” written for her farewell tour.
Harris’ biggest success came with the song “After the Ball”, which reached #1 in 1893 with a recording by George J. Gaskin. “After the Ball” was not only a major hit in the US but became perhaps the first “world” music with translation into several languages and publication in many countries. The story behind the creation of the song has been published in a number of references and one may imagine that there is a certain amount of urban legend quality to it. However, books written in 1930 and earlier all seem to consistently report the incident so it probably is largely true, although there is some question about the setting of “After the Ball”: Saginawians like to think that Harris witnessed a lovers’ quarrel when he was a bellboy at the Bancroft Hotel. Others (probably more accurately) place the famous spat in Milwaukee or Chicago.
Wherever it occurred, he had seen a pair of young lovers go home separately after a quarrel. He made note of the line “Many a heart is aching, after the ball.” On his return to Milwaukee he used the line as the basis of a story where an old man tells a story to his young niece of a lost love due to a terrible misunderstanding. It told the story of a man who had caught his fiance kissing another man after a dance. Refusing to listen to her explanations, he broke up with her and broke both their hearts. Years later, after her death, he found that the man was her brother. The idea of telling the story to a young niece allowed Harris to fill in lines using the word “pet.
Tearful story ballads became immensely popular with Victorian audiences. Ian Whitcomb, who titled his history of popular American music, explained, “Tearful songs were next in popularity to hymns in those days. Tears were considered good and right and natural.” Harris himself cried whenever he sang “After the Ball.” He wrote several other sad “story ballads” which became popular, however, nothing equaled the success of “After the Ball.”
It debuted in 1892 when actor Sam Doctor performed it in a Milwaukee theater. The song was a flop, mainly due to Sam forgetting the lyrics halfway through the song but Harris felt the song was a winner and published it himself. Harris was constantly badgering performers to present his songs on stage and he convinced a baritone, J. Aldrich Libby, to sing it in a popular show, “A Trip To Chinatown”. Harris himself recounted the performance in detail and described how Libby appeared in “full dress suit” and delivered the song with an “overwhelming effect.” It caught the attention of John Philip Sousa, who played the tune at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, boosting sheet music sales to in excess of five million copies. According to Whitcomb, the song was a hit right from the start. By the end of the year, every man, woman and child in the country was whistling, playing or singing it. Within a year, it was bringing in $25,000 a week and catapulting Harris’ publishing company to the top of the business. Within twenty years, sheet sales topped 10 million.
When “After The Ball” was published, the Union Square area in New York was the entertainment center of the US. In this area were centered vaudeville, The Academy of Music, Dewy Theater, other theaters, burlesque theaters, and numerous eateries, penny arcades, dance halls, beer halls and brothels. Such a concentration of entertainment offered unlimited possibilities for a songwriter and Harris saw the potential. In around 1895, Harris moved his organization from Milwaukee to Union Square, following several other pioneering publishers such as M. Whitmark & Sons, F.B. Haviland and Oliver Ditson. Together, these publishers formed the earliest Tin Pan Alley group that led to the area becoming the music center of America and perhaps the world.
Harris’ next hit “Break the News to Mother”, was about a brave fireman, killed in a building fire. As he is held in the arms of his father, his dying words were: “just break the news to mother, she knows how much I love her, tell her not to wait for me, For I’m not coming home”.
The song was not a success at that time but Harris rewrote it in 1897 during the 1897 Spanish American War and made the hero a fatally wounded soldier whose bravery came to the attention of the general who rushed to his side only to be surprised at the soldier’s identity:
The general in a moment, knelt down beside the boy;
Then gave a cry that touch’d all hearts that day.
It’s my son, my brave young hero; I thought you safe at home.”
“Forgive me, father, for I ran away.”
It became a big hit, and was also a hit during 1917 and 1918, with recordings by the Shannon Four and Henry Burr. The War and patriotic fervor was the ingredient that took a rather unremarkable song and took it to megahit levels. In doing so, Harris showed the industry that timing was essential and also that a song can be recycled and meet success against earlier failure. Many songwriters have since used the same technique to revive previous efforts. This song is often described as or presented as a Civil War song. Though the first edition of the song refers to the hero’s fighting in the Civil War, it is not a Civil War song and should not be presented as one. It is uniquely about the Spanish American War. In Harris’ autobiography, he tells a story about the origins of the song that is in conflict with all other biographical accounts.
Harris’s sentimental songs were introduced on stages and music halls, but they found ready acceptance among folkloric string bands of the South. Both “Fallen By the Wayside”‘ and “There’ll Come A Time” were recorded by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and both “Mid the Green Fields of Virginia” and his extremely popular song from 1901, “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven”, were recorded by The Carter Family.
As a publisher and promoter of music, Harris was a great innovator and as a result,was one of the most successful publishers of Tin Pan Alley over many years. His ability to judge which songs would sell was uncanny and he was particularly adept at persuading performers to introduce his songs. He is credited with being the first publisher to print photographs of singers on the sheet music, a practice that no doubt further endeared him to the performers. Harris claimed to be the first promoter to produce and use slides to illustrate a song in theaters. He used hand colored photographs mounted on glass and projected on the screen either to tell a story or provide the lyrics to the song for the audience. Harris often included himself as one of the characters. Harris called this “the illustrated song” and said that he got the idea from a travel lecture he attended in Chicago given by a minister.
Later in his career, Harris wrote scores for musicals and collaborated with some of the greatest musicians and composers of the period including Reginald De Koven and Victor Herbert. He also published for some of these same people including the great Oscar Hammerstein. Harris’ firm published the music for Hammerstein’s very first operetta, “Oscar Hammerstein’s Musical Production” in 1904.
Harris also worked hard to write and pass effective copyright laws. He was credited with getting the support of President Theodore Roosevelt to enact laws in 1909 to protect songwriters from piracy. He was also a founding member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, better known as ASCAP and still a power today.
Harris even tried his hand at writing a screenplay for a movie based on “After The Ball” in 1910 but the script was initially rejected by every studio he submitted it to. According to Harris’ autobiography, the screenplay was accepted and produced by William B. Steiner Photoplay Company. Harris decided to try to capitalize on his other hits in the same way and the Dyreda Picture company produced a film based on “Always In The Way”. Later he produced his own film based on “When It Strikes Home” after again being rejected. Harris produced several such photoplays around many of his songs. These were not full length movies of course, but short features based on the story behind the music.
In the music industry, Harris was the first secretary of ASCAP on its formation in 1914 and also was instrumental in promoting copyright legislation that protected composers and publishers from theft of intellectual property and ensured that they were compensated for performance of their works. He personally met with Theodore Roosevelt to get legislation out of a pigeonhole and moving forward.
Other highlights from the Harris catalog include “I’m Trying So Hard to Forget You”, “For Sale, A Baby”, “Why Don’t They Play With Me?”, “In the City Where Nobody Cares”, “Better than Gold”, “Just Behind the Times”, “I’ve Just Come to Say Goodbye”, “For Old Time’s Sake”, “I’ve a Longing in My Heart for You, Louise”, “Always in the Way”, “Would You Care?”, “The Best Things In Life”, “Nobody Knows, Nobody Cares” and “Songs of Yesterday”.
In 1906 Harris also penned and self-published the book “How to Write a Popular Song”. In 1926, Harris published his autobiography bearing the title, “After the Ball.” According to The New York Times Book Review, the book generated a “deluge of letters from amateur musicians expressing their high regard for his work.
Despite his enormous fame and fortune, Charles K. Harris never forgot the town he called “dear old Saginaw” and credited “all my success to the Saginaw schools.” On the occasion of the Saginaw Semi-Centennial in 1907, he wrote, “They laid the foundation of a good, common sense, practical education which has never left me and which has stood me in good stead all these years.”
Harris’ last years were spent writing fewer songs but more attention was focused on writing more movie scenarios which he had produced by Warner Brothers. In addition, few may recall the animated features “Out Of The Inkwell” but at least three of them were based on Harris songs. Harris also wrote two plays that had moderate success., “The Scarlet Sisters” and “What’s The Matter With Julius?” which was staged by the Davidson Stock Company in Milwaukee in 1926. Harris also decided to perform in vaudeville in the mid 1920’s, about the time vaudeville was fading, perhaps that is the one time in his life that his timing was bad.