Today is the 108th birthday of the musician Billy Tipton. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Billy Tipton
DATE OF BIRTH: December 29, 1914
PLACE OF BIRTH: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.
DATE OF DEATH: January 21, 1989
PLACE OF DEATH: Spokane, Washington
BEST KNOWN FOR: Billy Tipton 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.
Born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City, Tipton grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was raised by an aunt after his parents divorced when he was four. 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.
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 station KTOK and had a steady gig 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 the Joplin, Missouri, Cotton Club with George Meyer’s band before touring with the Ross Carlyle Band for a while. He then played music in Texas for two years.
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 pianist Teddy Wilson and 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.
In 1956, while on tour performing 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.
In 1958, after the success of both albums, the Billy Tipton Trio was offered a position as house band at the Holiday Hotel casino in Reno, Nevada, as well as open for fellow musician Liberace. Tops Records also 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.
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 gender 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 18 years old 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 Kitty Kelly.
Tipton and Kelly settled down together in 1961. They adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William. After they separated around 1977, 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”.
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 physically female. 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, The New York Times, 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.