America’s First Pop Hit Came from Milwaukee

Before Billboard charts, radio broadcasts or record sales, the commercial success of a song was measured by the number of music sheets sold. If you heard a song you liked and wanted to hear it again, you would have to buy the sheet of music and perform it yourself, often done in the company of friends and family. Towards the end of the 19th century, enterprising musicians saw an untapped market and began to write and sell popular music directly aimed at the people—distinct from the operas and religious songs that were meant to be performed by professionals. The beginnings of an industry emerged. Then in 1892 came the first song to explode in popularity and reach 1,000,000 copies of sheet music sold. “After the Ball” by Charles K. Harris, was written and first performed right here in Milwaukee.

“After the Ball” is a sentimental ballad, composed as a waltz, that tells the story of an old man who was left heartbroken by his fiancé and never again found love. Years later, he discovers that the other man he saw in the arms of his true love, on that eventful night, was in fact her brother. It was tragic narratives like this one which endeared the works of Harris to the public, earning him the moniker “king of the tear jerkers.”

But the success of the song counted on more than its emotional hook. Charles K. Harris was a shrewd businessman, and he was in the business of selling songs. Aside from telling a gripping story, he knew his songs must contain a melody that was both memorable and hummable. Harris, although a talented banjoist, could not actually read or write music, and often formed his songs by writing down lyrics and humming or whistling a simple melody. Then he would hire someone else to properly arrange it on page for piano or orchestra. In the case of “After the Ball,” he hired another talented Milwaukee musician, Joseph Clauder, for which he paid him a small sum of $10.

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Harris also understood that if anybody was going to buy his music, they would first have to hear it. He smartly parlayed himself a position as a writer and reviewer for a New York drama publication, thus ensuring himself a permanent invitation to all of Milwaukee’s theaters. From there he was able to get into rooms with performers and pitch his original songs to them. On such an occasion, a famous baritone singer called Libbey was drawn to “After the Ball” and agreed to perform it during a show called A Trip to Chinatown.

Cream City to Chicago World Fair

The song was received well in Milwaukee and the travelling performer continued to sing it on his tour of the east coast, where it exploded in popularity. In a short amount of time, orders for over 75,000 music sheets came in. Harris, who was spurned by previous industry relationships, was already in the business of self-publishing his music. In a matter of weeks, he found himself with extreme wealth and immense popularity. Performances of his song at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, led by John Philip Sousa, further exposed the song to a larger and international audience and cemented the song’s legacy for ages.

Of course, much like pop hits today, the song and even Harris himself had their fair share of detractors. Some merely expressed dismay after hearing the song played countless times. It’s reported that Mankato, Kansas instituted a 50 cent fine to any person guilty of whistling or singing “After the Ball.” Others questioned the song’s merits, calling it hackneyed and unoriginal. In a level of snark (and sexism) which would not be out of place on today’s internet, a person wrote about Harris upon news of his marriage, “We were about to suggest that he be hung, but if he is married that will do instead.”

With his newfound fame and fortune, he would go on to expand his business and open new offices. Soon he became an important player of Tin-Pan Alley, a section of New York City which housed composers and publishers who wrote, marketed, and sold popular music and helped shape the industry as we know it today. He would go on to write many other hits and generate wealth from his self-published music sheets, although none as commercially successful as his first hit. Later in his career, Harris was part of lobbying efforts to establish new copywrite laws to protect the interests of artists and their works and was the first secretary of ASCAP—an organization that still functions today to ensure artists are properly paid.

Eventually the inventions of piano rolls, records, and the radio would squelch the need for music sheets, but none of which can erase the significance of the first song to sell 1,000,000 copies— Milwaukee’s own “After the Ball.”