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Charles Kassel Harris, ca. 1892

Chas. K. Harris

"King Of The Tear Jerker"



Perhaps no other songwriter has so changed the landscape of American popular song as Charles K. Harris. A daring and bold innovator, a precocious youth and perhaps even a colossal egotist, Harris was the first songwriter to create a multi-million seller and the first songwriter to corner the market on his own product. A man whose songwriting career spanned forty years and over 300 published songs, Harris could neither read nor write music and there is some evidence that much of his music was actually written by others, yet he never gave more than an "arranged by" credit to those involved. Almost every song he published, till late in his career carried a bold header with his photograph in what I characterize as a pose of royal authority. His prominent handlebar mustache was a proud brand of the day and one he obviously wore for many years. The early photos are in stark contrast to a photo of him in 1926 (see below) that conveys a man of gentle good humor with smiling eyes and a much warmer persona. Whatever the first impression, no one can deny the impact that Harris had on our music. Declared the "master of the sentimental ballad" and "king of the tear jerker's", Harris held fast to a belief that songs should tell a story and it was almost always a sad tale they told. He knew the value of sentiment and the power of emotion and used it always to his advantage. In many respects, he is one of the founding fathers of Tin Pan Alley and was a master of marketing and innovation in the industry.


 

Born in Poughkipsie, New York on May 1,1867, Charles Kassel Harris found himself in Saginaw, Michigan and then Milwaukee, Wisconsin soon thereafter where he spent his boyhood and first few years of his professional life. He was from a large family of five sisters and four brothers. His father was a general store owner and traded furs with the Indians in Saginaw for a few years before moving the family to Milwaukee. As a boy, he became interested in the songs of minstrel shows and was fascinated with the banjo. Not able to afford one, he built his own out of oyster cans and a broomstick and began to pick out tunes from the shows. He later was "picking airs from the shows and words from the air¹". 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.

 

After his rather embarrassing first attempts to write songs, Harris stayed in the background while trying to hone his song writing skills. 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 goes², with a companion, Charles Horwitz, he decided to write a song for the play. One writer said the song, Since Maggie Learned To Skate was "a sorry affair³", yet Goodwin loved it and wanted to include it in the show and thus was launched Harris' career as a songwriter. In Harris' autobiography, he recounts the presentation of the song to Goodwin as;

"I sat down with the newly written song before me while Horwitz, standing beside me, sang it to my playing. He sang it as if his very life depended upon it. Think what an honor it meant to two struggling young boys to (potentially) have the famous Goodwin sing one of their songs! At the end of the song, Goodwin, deeply interested, dropped his toast and came over to the piano. 'Repeat that chorus' he said to Horwitz. Fully six or seven times he beckoned Horwitz to sing the chorus. He became so elated over the song that he sent for his manager and his musical director."
You can decide for yourself as to the quality of the song; see and listen to the scorch version by clicking the sheet cover or click here for the midi version) Interestingly, the Maggie skate song was published by T.B. Harms in 1885 and attributed completely to Horwitz; both music and words. Since all of the references I have used attribute the song to Harris, it is curious his name does not appear on the published song. One could sumise that Harris recognized that the song was not good and "generously" allowed Horwitz to take credit. On the other hand, since Goodwin felt the song was excellent, it may well be that Horwitz was the composer and lyricist and Harris took advantage of him in this instance. There is a very revealing clue in Harris' autobiography that may bare the truth. He said "The next evening, Horwitz came to my home with a lyric entitled, Since Maggie Learned to Skate. I hummed a melody which I thought would fit the words and in a short time the song was composed." From that, I think it is clear that Horwitz deserves the bulk of the credit and indeed was the composer and lyricist for the song. Though Harris says that before that evening he told Horwitz, "'I will write the music, said I, 'If you will write the lyric.'" Clearly, Harris gave a melody no thought till Horwitz showed up with the lyric and humming a possible melody, in my opinion, hardly constitutes writing a song. I believe that Harris was more an opportunist than a songwriter in this instance.

Regardless of Goldberg's opinion of the song's quality, he also recognized the historic significance of the song in saying; "But it was with that doggerel of words and music that Charles Harris skated on to the rink of a career that was to revolutionize the popular song." Perhaps Godlburg should have said, that by using the work of Charles Horwitz, Harris skated on to that rink.

 

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. As a result, he wrote Creep, Baby Creep, Let's Kissand Make Up and Thou Art Ever In My Thoughts in the period from around 1884-1890. As for Creep, Baby Creep(Click the cover for the scorch version, click here for the midi.). Harris republished the song in 1890 after he had established his own publishing house and then republished it again after his big hit After The Ball to capitalize of the marketing power of that song.

 

 Harris learned an early business lesson with the publication of his first works. One of his first songs earned him a total of eighty-five cents in royalties. Immediately Harris saw that it was the publisher who made the money, not the songwriter (in general, that has been the case in the music industry right up till today). At the tender age of 18, Harris established his own publishing company 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


In 1891, Harris wrote Break The News To Mother, a song 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 Spanish American War and made the hero a soldier and the song was a big hit. Interestingly, Harris tells a different story in his autobiography and implies that he had never published the song with a different story line. However, before that, Harris wrote After The Ball and set a new standard for popular music and was the first songwriter to have a million selling sheet, a huge accomplishment in 1892! 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 man countries. This cover is from the Swedish edition published in Stockholm in 1894. The story behind the creation of this song has been published in a number of references and I 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.

Harris had attended a dance in Chicago. There 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 and old man tells a story to his young niece of a lost love due to a terrible misunderstanding. The idea of telling the story to a young niece allowed Harris to fill in lines using the word "pet."

 

By most accounts, the first performance of After The Ball was a disaster. The performer, Sam Doctor forgot the words and so the audience never heard the story or the complete song. Regardless, 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." John Philip Sousa heard and liked the tune and played it daily at the Chicago World's fair and as a result, the song was launched as the first blockbuster hit, selling well over FIVE MILLION copies!


Harris' success with After the Ball prompted him to write many more songs. Almost every song he wrote carried the "Composer of After The Ball" headline to help spur sales of his works. Though his name did help sell many songs, and many did sell over one million copies, only two other works by him approached the success of After The Ball. One of those was Break The News To Mother (Click the cover for the scorch version, here for the midi.), rewritten in 1897 (see above). The substitution of a soldier for the original fireman and timing that coincided with the start of the Spanish American War increased the song's popularity. 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' story implies that the song was an original one in 1897 that was inspired by a soldier's bravery.

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 lead to the area becoming the music center of America and perhaps the world.

 

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's firm published the music for Hammerstein's very first operetta, Oscar Hamerstein's Musical Production in 1904. Harris also 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.

 

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, only those of us at advanced age 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, 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 20's, about the time vaudeville was fading, perhaps that is the one time in his life that his timing was bad.

Harris passed away on December 22, 1930 in New York City.

 

From reading his autobiography, it is obvious that Harris was a vain and proud man. One who played it close to the vest, he allowed few people into his business and fewer still to share in his success and acclaim. He was a private man, even in his own book, you get precious little glimpses into his family life. He was a pioneer in the American music industry and set the course of American popular music on a new direction with one song. Perhaps more a promoter than a musician, a critical musical review of his works reveal few "masterpieces", yet he managed to promote himself into preeminence in the industry. I have found some of his music to be entertaining, most to be rather common. Perhaps his harshest critic was Sigmund Spaeth who wrote in his 1948 History of Popular Music In America;

"The career of Charles K. Harris remains a convincing proof that one can become an enormously popular songwriter without ever writing a really good song."



ParlorSongs, November, 2001 (updated February, 2011)


Notes
  1. Goldberg, Isaac, Tin Pan Alley, John Day Company, New York, 1930
  2. This story is recounted in several resources about Harris' life yet the song was published in Horwitz's name only. (Ewen, Goldberg, Spaeth, etc.)
  3. Goldberg, p. 91 "it was a sorry affair in all conscience."
(See our resources page for a complete list of references used to research this article as well as all of our other articles.)


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