MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee played a major role in the development of pop music. In fact, Milwaukee is home to the first major commercial pop song.
The first song to sell millions of copies of sheet music was written and first performed in Cream City. The song is called 'After the Ball' by Charles Harris. It was written in 1891 and debuted in 1892. Sheet music was one of the metrics used to determine the popularity of a song. The song wouldn't sell well if it wasn't received well by the audience, and crowds loved it.
"For its day, it was one of the most successful songs ever written," Dr. Gillian Rodger, the chair of the music department at UW-Milwaukee, said.
Records aren't exact back in the late 19th century and early 20th century, but various reports show that the song sold eight million copies and more than 10 million copies of sheet music. Regardless of the exact number of copies, the song hit one very important milestone.
It was "the first pop song to sell a million copies in sheet music," Dr. Rodger, who is an expert on 19th century popular music, said.
'After the Ball' was translated into dozens of languages. Famous composer John Philip Sousa heard it and began including it in his shows. He even performed it at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
The song experienced the majority of its popularity from the 1890s to 1930s; however, it was still part of pop culture well into the 20th century.
"I learned this song in Australia in the 1970s. We sang it, so it went all around the world," Dr. Rodger said.
'After the Ball' isn't a pop song like we are used to in the 21st century. But the very nature of pop music is that it's simple, catchy, and reaches a large audience. Charles Harris' song fit the bill perfectly.
"It was meant to earn him a lot of money very quickly, so he could write more songs that were very similar that were practically interchangeable, which is kind of the characteristic of pop music today," Dr. Rodger said.
In that sense, the song is no different from a Taylor Swift hit.
For how popular the song became, it almost flopped. Harris wrote the song for Sam Doctor to perform at a show in Milwaukee. As the story goes, and Dr. Rodger mentioned it too, the singer botched the lyrics of the song. That didn't defeat Harris. He believed in the song so much he began to shop his song around to local theater companies.
During the 1890s, it was common for songwriters to try and inject their song into an already established musical or show. That's exactly what Harris did. 'After the Ball' had nothing to do with the show 'A Trip to Chinatown' but Harris managed to get the song in the show anyway. After the show, the crowd roared with excitement and asked for an encore of 'After the Ball'.
From that moment, the song would go on to be a pop sensation and cement Milwaukee's legacy in music history.