American One Hit Wonder: Charles K. Harris

          Creating hits is the backbone of the song writing industry; indeed hits earn money, set musical trends and create the inspiration for others to perpetuate the trade and make more music.  During the era when song writers had higher billing than recording artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, song writers like Harry von Tilzer, George M. Cohan, Paul Dresser and Irving Berlin composed numerous hits each.  Hit making then transitioned from the domain of the composer to performer during the 1920s, particularly when radio became popular entertainment, after which recording stars became the public image of a song.  Recording acts like Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller and The Mills Brother and countless others over the decades have recorded numerous hits as well and this pattern continues into the twenty-first century with hit-makers like Rhianna, Eminem, and Katy Perry among others.  But for some writers and performers, their careers would be defined by a sole big hit.  In more affectionate, modern jargon, these are commonly known as one hit wonders.

          Such was the case for Charles K. Harris, whose ballad “After the Ball” not only was the first song to sell one million copies and become a mass produced hit but it also set the musical trends in style and promotion for a whole decade.  The song’s success, and Harris’s financial windfall from it, inspired other Tin Pan Alley songwriters into a hyperactivity of publishing and promotion with lyricists and composers clamouring to create their own big hits.  Harris’s contribution to the revolution in the song writing trade and Tin Pan Alley’s commercial ambition is enormous.  Yet, despite “After the Ball’s” commercial success, Harris’s later songs did not achieve the level of popularity of his big hit and eventually ragtime replaced the popularity of the sentimental ballad genre and left him without a market for his style of song writing.  Harris however, found success collaborating for musical theatre and advocating for copy write laws for music as a the inaugural secretary of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, where he served for a decade.  The man who wrote the song that commercialized Tin Pan Alley and became an advocate for intellectual property for the music business was the first one hit wonder.

The anatomy of “After the Ball” helps to explain why it became such a success.  One reason why it became a big hit was that the verses sparked emotion.  “After the Ball” is an example of one of the most popular genres of the 1890s:  the sentimental ballad, a sad song which told a story intended to excite emotion in the audience and consequently the potential consumer.  In the song, an old man recounts the story of how his heart was broken and why he had never married.  The central character describes the situation thusly,

“I had a sweetheart, years, years ago

Where she is now, you will soon know.

List’ to the story, I’ll tell it all.

I believed her faithless, after the ball.”[1]

The man explains how after fetching his sweetheart a glass of water, he found her kissing another man, after which his heart breaks and he “never wed.”  In the third verse, the audience learns that “long years have passed” and his sweetheart has now died; the man kissing her evidently was her brother.  The long, heart-rending and sometimes convoluted storyline was integral in a song’s popularity, the soap opera-like lyrics kept the audience’s attention to hear what happens in the next verse.[2]  However, lyrically, Harris notes that the song is not perfect and that there are some odd choices including odd word inversions to fit the meter like “I wish some water” and “List’ to the story, I’ll tell it all.”  However, according to Harris, in the final product, “defects are not so apparent.”[3]  The sentimental ballad was what audiences wanted to hear in 1892, despite the sometimes awkward wordings, and consequently, struck a chord with consumers willing to pay for sheet music.

            But beyond the storyline within the verses, Harris used the chorus to popularize the song.  A reason for the song’s success was that the title was used throughout the song in convenient ways so that the audience could remember it.  The song is a simple ABABAB structure, three consecutive verses, each one its own chapter of the story, each one followed by the same refrain summarizing the song.  It is this refrain which accomplishes the technique of popularization; it repeats a simply lyric that an audience would remember and strengthens the title of the song.  The chorus goes:

After the ball is over, after the break of dawn

After the dancers’ leaving, after the stars are gone

Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all

Many the hope that have vanished, after the ball.[4]

Not only does the title begin and end the refrain, it also ends each of the three verses which precede it.  It is an easily memorable title, which customers could see on the cover of the song in a music section of a shop and purchase later on.  Such techniques are even touted in modern methods of popular song writing in the twenty-first century, and according to one source, the objective of the chorus is to “summarize the idea of the song in a general way and to hammer home its title.”[5]  If an audience needed to remember one part of the song, it would have to be the chorus and Harris was one of the first composers to implement the refrain in popular song specifically for this purpose.   After the song’s success, the technique of making a song memorable via the refrain was standard practice throughout Tin Pan Alley in the 1890s.[6]

        Even though the song became the most popular song of the nineteenth century, it was almost a failure, but because of ruthless promotional techniques it became a tremendously popular hit.  During its debut performance in Milwaukee in 1891, the singer Sam Doctor was laughed off stage when he forgot the complicated lyrics mid-performance.  In order to get another chance for its public performance, Harris enticed the singer J. Aldrich Libby $500 and bribed an orchestra conductor with cigars to shoehorn the song into the popular musical farce A Trip to Chinatown, even though the song did not fit the plot in any way.[7]  After the performance the audience demanded an encore as soon as it ended.[8]  Marketing tactics of this merciless sort, even tampering with another’s music work by inserting one’s one song into it, would become common for pop songs of the era and for Harris, made “After the Ball” the first song to sell one million copies of sheet music.  In fact it went on to sell five million thanks to its continued inclusion in the musical; after all, A Trip to Chinatown, enjoyed 657 consecutive performances  on Broadway.[9]   The next year, John Philip Sousa performed it daily at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago[10] and Irish tenor George J Gaskin’s recordings on phonograph were best sellers of that year.[11]  What began as a bribed addition in a Milwaukee performance of a musical became a total moment of American pop hysteria in that year and set the standards of musical plugging that would overtake Tin Pan Alley later in the decade.

         The song created an instant gauge of not just how many copies a song could sell and how much money could earn a person money, but also how much fame a composer of pop songs could achieve.[12]  As the sole lyricist, composer and publisher, Harris was not obligated to share the song’s earnings, roughly $10 million, with anyone. [13] In New York’s Tin Pan Alley, the hub of American song publishing, Harris’s success must have inspired other songwriters to continue writing and to become successful composers and lyricists themselves.  After 1893, the noisy area of clanging pianos in New York City became the epicenter of a change in mentality for entertainment, from public amusement to profitable industry.  When asked where Tin Pan Alley is, Caesar Irving, writer of “Swanee” and “Tea for Two,” responded, “Closest to the nearest buck.”[14] Pop songs had gone from passive entertainment to business and industry and Charles K. Harris’s big hit is one of, if not the biggest, catalyst in this transformation.

          Harris continued to write and publish lachrymose story songs throughout the 1890s and early twentieth century without the great success of “After the Ball.”[15]  Known as The King of the Tear Jerker, Harris continued to publish ballads with such titles as “My Mama Lives Up in the Sky,” “’Tis Not Always Bullets that Kill,” “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them,” and “When Angels Weep,” among dozens of others.  However, few had the success of “After the Ball.”  Only 1897’s “Break the News to Mother,” about a dying soldier[16] and 1901’s “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven,” in which a child tries to connect with her dead mother in Heaven via the new telephone, were even close to Harris’s previous success.  But by then, a new style of syncopated composition and vernacular lyrical styling known as ragtime was changing the aesthetics of writers in Tin Pan Alley; the popularity of Harris’s composition style faded with the sentimental ballad.  Charles K. Harris, however, continued to remain active in music writing and publishing until his death in 1930.  During the first decade of the twentieth century and in the 1910s, he collaborated with famous and celebrated Broadway composers and lyricists like Reginald de Koven, Oscar Hammerstein, and Victor Herbert.  Beginning in 1914, Harris was the first secretary of the Association of Songwriters, Composers and Publishers and he was a stalwart champion of the copy rights of song writers and composers.  Harris even worked with Warner Bros in the very earliest days of talking movies composing music for film.[17]  Charles K. Harris was even inducted in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1970.

            But the song was larger than he was and it is worth mentioning that Harris continued to relish in the success of the song for the rest of his life.  All of his other published songs subsequently included the tagline “Composer of ‘After the Ball’” above his name on the cover pages to help sell them.  He wrote a screen play for film of the song’s plot in 1910, but it was rejected and was never approved by any studio.  In an early talking video recording, Harris himself sang the tune for the camera.[18]  He even titled his autobiography After the Ball.  But the song has remained a culturally defining moment of the so-called Gay Nineties and is included in the 1927 musical Show Boat, which is partly set during this time.  It also appears in period motion pictures and musicals Lillian Russell (1940), The Jolson Story (1946), and There’s A Girl in My Heart (1950).  “After the Ball” had also been recorded by numerous musicians including Guy Lombardo and Johnny Cash.[19]  Not only did the song have great success, but few other such songs can claim the distinction of being a cultural symbol of an entire era.

            “After the Ball” has the dubious distinction of being an important song in pop history in the amount of change in the industry which followed its success, but also in its composer being the first true one hit wonder.  Within one year of a performance in which its words were forgotten, it became a nation hit that nearly everybody knew.  Thanks to Harris’s tenacity for promotion and the song writing skills he used to popularize the song, it became a big hit.  Although the song changed pop history in nearly every aspect from structure to promotion, Harris did not have another big hit, going on to other arenas of the commercial music industry including the stage and the legal aspects of copyright laws.  But his song continues to have relevance, and it remains a cultural benchmark for the 1890s that people recognize in popular culture.

References

Blume, Jason.  6 Steps to Songwriting Success:  The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs.  New York:  Billboard Books.  1999.

“Charles K. Harris – After the Ball.”  YouTube video, 3:16.  Posted by “adamgswanson,” on 26 November 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIXGlQdTDKY.

“Charles K. Harris:  Biography.”  Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Accessed on 24 January 2014. http://songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/bio/C264

“Charles K. Harris:  Home Exhibit.”  Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Accessed on 24 January 2014. http://songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/C264

“Chas K Harris:  King of the Tear Jerker.”  The Parlor Songs Academy.  Accessed on 1 February 2014.  Parlorsongs.com/bios/ckharris/ckharris.php.

Furia, Philip.  The Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  A History of America’s Great Lyricists.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  1990.

Harris, Charles K.  “After the Ball.”  New York:  Chas. K. Harris & Co.  1892.

Hischak, Thomas S. The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopedia.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press.  2002.

Stempel, Larry.  Showtime:  A History of the Broadway Musical Theater.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co.  2010.

Whitburn, Joel.  Pop Memories:  1890-1955.  Menomonee, WI:  Record Research Inc.  1966.


[1] Charles K Harris, “After the Ball,” (New York:  Chas. K Harris & Co, 1892).

[2] Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  A History of America’s Great Lyricists, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990), 22-23.

[3] Charles K. Harris, qtd in Furia, 23.

[4] Harris, “After the Ball.”

[5] Jason Blume, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success:  The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs, (New York:  Billboard Books, 2001), 4.

[6] Furia, 24.

[7] Larry Stempel. Showtime:  A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co, 2010), 152.

[8] Thomas S Hischak, The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopedia, (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 2002), s.v. “After the Ball,.”

[9] Stempel, 69.

[10] “Charles K Harris:  Home Exhibit,” Song Writers Hall of Fame, accessed on 24 January 2014, http://songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/C264.

[11] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1955, (Menomonee, WI:  Record Research Inc, 1986), 642.

[12] Furia, 23.

[13] “Charles K Harris:  Biography,” Song Writer’s Hall of Fame, accessed on 24 January 2014, http://songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/bio/C264.

[14] Caesar Irving, qtd in Furia,19.

[15] Furia, 25.

[16] There are accounts which indicate that “Break the News to Mother” was originally written in 1891 about a dying firefighter, not a soldier.  See “Chas. K Harris:  King of the Tear Jerker,” contained on The Parlor Songs Academy, last modified February 2011, http://www.parlorsongs.com/bios/ckharris/ckharris.php.

[17] “Chas K Harris:  King of the Tear Jerker,” found on The Parlor Songs Academy.

[18] “Charles K Harris – After the Ball,” YouTube video, 3:16, posted by “adamgswanson,” posted on 26 November 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIXGlQdTDKY.

[19] Hischak, 4.

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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

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