Harris was born in Poughkeepsie, New York into a family of ten children. His father was a fur trader and moved the family to Saginaw, Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he grew up. From his early fascination with the banjo, he wrote his first song "Since Maggie Learned To Skate" for the play The Skating Rink by Nat Goodwin in 1885.
In 1891, Harris wrote "After the Ball", a song about an old man recounting the story of his long-lost love to his niece. He 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 in the 1890s. His next hit "Break The News To Mother", about a dying soldier, coincided with the Spanish American War in 1897 and furthered his popularity.
Later, Harris began writing songs for musicals, working with Oscar Hammerstein. His plays The Scarlet Sisters and What's The Matter With Julius had moderate success. He died in New York City in 1930.