William Lee Tipton (December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989) was an American jazz musician, bandleader, and talent broker. For decades, Tipton assumed a male gender identity. Tipton's female birth sex was not publicly revealed until after his death, and the revelation came as a surprise to family and friends.
|Birth name||Dorothy Lucille Tipton|
|Born||December 29, 1914|
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.
|Died||January 21, 1989 (aged 74)|
|Occupation(s)||Musician, talent agent|
|Years active||1936–late 1970s|
Tipton's music career began in the mid-1930s when he led a band for radio broadcasts. He played in various dance bands in the 1940s and recorded two trio albums for a small record label in the mid-1950s. Thereafter, he worked as a talent broker. Tipton stopped performing in the late 1970s due to arthritis.
Born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Tipton grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was raised by an aunt after his parents divorced when he was four. He subsequently rarely saw his father, G. W. Tipton, a pilot who sometimes took him for airplane rides. As a high school student, Tipton went by the nickname "Tippy" and became interested in music (especially jazz), playing piano and saxophone. Tipton was not allowed to join the all-male school band at Southwest High School. He returned to Oklahoma for his final year of high school and joined the school band at Connors State College High School.
Around 1933, Tipton started binding his breasts and dressing as a man to fit in with the typical jazz band image of the era. As Tipton began a more serious music career, he "decided to permanently take on the role of a male musician", adopting the name Billy Lee Tipton. By 1940, Tipton was living as a man in private life as well. Two of Tipton's female cousins, with whom Tipton maintained contact over the years, were the only persons known to be privy to Tipton's assigned sex.
In 1936, Tipton was the leader of a band playing on KFXR radio. In 1938, Tipton joined Louvenie's Western Swingbillies, a band that played on radio KTOK and at Brown's Tavern. In 1940 he was touring the Midwest playing at dances with Scott Cameron's band. In 1941 he began a two and a half-year run performing at Joplin's Cotton Club with George Meyer's band, then toured for a time with Ross Carlyle, then played for two years in Texas.
In 1949, Tipton began touring the Pacific Northwest with Meyer. While this tour was far from glamorous, the band's appearances at Roseburg, Oregon's Shalimar Room were recorded by a local radio station, and so recordings exist of Tipton's work during this time, including "If I Knew Then" and "Sophisticated Swing". The trio's signature song was "Flying Home", performed in a close imitation of Benny Goodman's band.
As George Meyer's band became more successful, they began getting more work, performing at the Boulevard Club in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, sharing the bill with others such as The Ink Spots, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and Billy Eckstine.
Tipton began playing piano alone at the Elks club in Longview, Washington in 1951. In Longview, he started the Billy Tipton Trio, which included Dick O'Neil on drums, and Kenny Richards (and later Ron Kilde) on bass. The trio gained local popularity.
During a performance on tour at King's Supper Club in Santa Barbara, California, a talent scout from Tops Records heard them play and got them a contract. The Billy Tipton Trio recorded two albums of jazz standards for Tops: Sweet Georgia Brown and Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano, both released early in 1957. Among the pieces performed were "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", "Willow Weep for Me", "What'll I Do", and "Don't Blame Me". In 1957, the albums sold 17,678 copies, a "respectable" sum for a small independent record label.
After the albums' success, the Billy Tipton Trio was offered a position as house band at the Holiday Hotel casino in Reno, Nevada, and Tops Records invited the trio to record four more albums. Tipton declined both offers, choosing instead to move to Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a talent broker and the trio performed weekly. He played mainly swing standards rather than the jazz he preferred. His performances included skits in the vaudeville tradition, in which he imitated celebrities such as Liberace and Elvis Presley. In some of these sketches, he played a little girl. He mentored young musicians at the Dave Sobol Theatrical Agency.
In the late 1970s, worsening arthritis forced Tipton to retire from music.
Tipton was never legally married, but there were five women who called themselves Mrs. Tipton at various points. In 1934, Tipton began living with a woman named Non Earl Harrell in a relationship that other musicians thought of as lesbian. The relationship ended in 1942. Tipton's sex was reportedly concealed from the four women who would later call themselves "Mrs. Tipton". Tipton kept the secret of his extrinsic sexual characteristics from them by telling them he had been in a serious car accident that resulted in damaged genitals and broken ribs.
Tipton's next relationship, with a singer known only as "June", lasted for several years. For seven years, Tipton lived with Betty Cox, who was 19 when they became involved. Cox remembered Tipton as "the most fantastic love of my life." In 1954, Tipton's relationship with Cox ended, and he then entered a relationship with a woman named Maryann. The pair moved to Spokane, Washington in 1958. Maryann later stated that in 1960, she discovered that Tipton had become involved with nightclub dancer and stripper Kitty Kelly.
Tipton and Kelly settled down together in 1961. They adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William. After they separated in the 1970s, Tipton resumed a relationship with Maryann. Maryann reportedly discovered Tipton's birth certificate and asked Tipton about it once, but was given no reply other than a "terrible look".
Death, post-mortem outing, and aftermathEdit
In 1989, at the age of 74, Tipton had symptoms which he attributed to the emphysema he had contracted from heavy smoking and refused to call a doctor. He was actually suffering from a hemorrhaging peptic ulcer which, untreated, was fatal. While paramedics were trying to save Tipton's life, his son, William, learned that his father was a transgender man. This information "came as a shock to nearly everyone, including the women who had considered themselves his wives, as well as his sons and the musicians who had traveled with him". In an attempt to keep Tipton's biological sex a secret, Kitty arranged for his body to be cremated; later, following financial offers from the media, Kitty and one of their sons went public with the story. The first newspaper article was published the day after Tipton's funeral and it was quickly picked up by wire services. Stories about Tipton appeared in a variety of papers including tabloids such as National Enquirer and Star, as well as People, New York Magazine and The Seattle Times. Tipton's family even made talk show appearances.
Tipton left two wills: one handwritten and not notarized that left everything to William Jr.; and the second, notarized, leaving everything to John Clark, the first child the Tiptons adopted. A court upheld the first will, and William inherited almost everything, with John and Scott receiving one dollar each. According to a 2009 episode of the documentary program The Will: Family Secrets Revealed, which featured interviews with all three sons, it was revealed that a final court judgment awarded all three sons an equal share of his wife Kitty Tipton's estate (not Billy Tipton's), which, after lawyers' fees, amounted to $35,000 for each son.
Works inspired by TiptonEdit
- The 1991 song "Tipton" by folk singer Phranc is a tribute to Billy Tipton.
- Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man is a 1995 short film based on the life and career of Billy Tipton.
- In 1998, Diane Middlebrook wrote a biography of Tipton which she titled Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. The Houghton Mifflin Company published the 320-page book.
- Stevie Wants to Play the Blues was a play based on Tipton's life written by Eduardo Machado and performed in Los Angeles, directed by Simon Callow and starring Amy Madigan.
- The Slow Drag was a play based on Tipton's life by Carson Kreitzer performed in New York City and London.
- An opera based on Tipton's life, Billy, was staged in Olympia, Washington.
- Trumpet is a novel by Jackie Kay inspired by Tipton's life.
- The Opposite Sex Is Neither, a theatrical revue by noted trans woman Kate Bornstein features Billy Tipton.
- "Billy's Thing" is an unreleased track by Jill Sobule.
- "The Legend of Billy Tipton," by the punk band The Video Dead, is about the story of Billy Tipton.
- The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet took its name from Billy Tipton after learning his story.
- "Kill Me, Por Favor" is a short story with a section about Billy Tipton in Ry Cooder's book Los Angeles Stories (City Lights Books, 2011).
- Orfão, Jorge (2012). "Female Masculinities: The Tipton/Moody Transgender Case". MA Dissertation in Feminist Studies presented at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra, coordinated by Professor Doctor Adriana Bebiano. November 8.
- The singer-songwriter and cabaret artist Nellie McKay occasionally performs an original biographical show about Tipton, "A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton". The first performances were given at the New York nightclub 54 Below on August 5–9, 2014. The show uses music from various genres and periods.
- Soita minulle Billy [Call me Billy], a Finnish play with Joanna Haartti playing Tipton, presented at Theatre Jurka in 2011 and again at the 2012 Helsinki Festival.
- D. C. Simpson's comic strip Phoebe and her Unicorn is set in a town named for Tipton.
- Sweet Georgia Brown Tops Records L1522 (1957)
- Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano Tops Records L1534 (1957)
- Blecha, Peter (September 17, 2005). "Tipton, Billy (1914-1989): Spokane's Secretive Jazzman". HistoryLink. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
- Slape, Leslie (April 23, 2006). "Most Notorious — Billy Tipton was a self-made man". TDN.com. Retrieved December 16, 2018.
- Middlebrook, Diane Wood (1998). "Born Naked". Suits me : the double life of Billy Tipton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395957899. OCLC 607072271. Retrieved December 26, 2018.
- Smith, Dinitia (June 2, 1998). "Billy Tipton Is Remembered With Love, Even by Those Who Were Deceived". The New York Times. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
- Middlebrook, Diane (1999). Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. Houghton Mifflin. pp. 252–255. ISBN 978-0-395-95789-9.
- Adams, Cecil (June 5, 1998). "What's the story on the female jazz musician who lived as a man?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
- Susannah, Francesca. "Women Like That: The Transformation of Dorothy Tipton". Out in the Mountains. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
- Vollers, Maryanne (May 18, 1998). "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton". Salon Books. Archived from the original on May 16, 2007. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
- Smith, Dinitia (June 2, 1998). "One False Note in a Musician's Life; Billy Tipton Is Remembered With Love, Even by Those Who Were Deceived". The New York Times. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
- "Death Discloses Billy Tipton's Strange Secret: He Was a She – Vol. 31 No. 7". people.com. February 20, 1989. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
- Lehrman, Sally (May – June 1997). "Billy Tipton: Self-Made Man". Stanford Today Online. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
- Clark, Doug (March 5, 1989). "Billy Tipton's Estate". Spokesman Review. Archived from the original on July 28, 2009. Retrieved December 9, 2008.
- Brubach, Holly (June 28, 1998). "Swing Time". The New York Times. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
- "Family Secrets Revealed: Death Reveals Secret". discovery.com. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
- Drake, Sylvie (February 19, 1990). "Stage Review: 'Stevie' Has Jazz and Drama, but Lacks a Subtext". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
- "The Video Dead: Brotherhood of the Dead". Gasoline Magazine. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved April 11, 2007.
- "Universidade de Coimbra - Faculdade de Letras". uc.pt. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
- "Soita minulle Billy". www.jurkka.fi (in Finnish). Retrieved February 20, 2017.
- "Stage / Kotimainen ohjelmisto: Soita minulle Billy" (in Finnish). Retrieved February 20, 2017.
- Simpson, Dana (October 9, 2016). "What's in a few names". Dana Simpson. Retrieved August 15, 2017.