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Billy Tipton

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Billy Tipton
Tipton, c. 1966
Tipton, c. 1966
Background information
Born(1914-12-29)December 29, 1914
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.
DiedJanuary 21, 1989(1989-01-21) (aged 74)
Spokane, Washington, U.S.
GenresJazz, swing
Occupation(s)Musician, talent agent
Instrument(s)Piano, Saxophone[1]
Years active1936–late 1970s

Billy Lee Tipton (December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989) was an American jazz musician, bandleader, and talent broker. Tipton lived and identified as a man for most of his adult life; after his death, friends and family were surprised to learn that he was transgender.

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.

Early life[edit]

Assigned female at birth, Billy was originally named Dorothy Lucille Tipton. He was born in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1914. Tipton grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was raised by an aunt after his parents divorced when he was four.[2] As a high school student, Tipton went by the nickname "Tippy" and became interested in music (especially jazz), playing piano and saxophone.[2] 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.[2]

Around 1933, Tipton started binding his breasts and presenting stereotypically masculine traits.[3] 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.[2] By 1940, Tipton was living as a man in private life as well.[3]


Early work[edit]

In 1936, Tipton was the leader of a band playing on KFXR radio.[2] 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.[2] In 1940 he was touring the Midwest playing at dances with Scott Cameron's band.[2] 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.[2]

In 1949, Tipton began touring the Pacific Northwest with Meyer.[2] 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 his work during this time, including "If I Knew Then" and "Sophisticated Swing".[2] The trio's signature song was "Flying Home", performed in a close imitation of pianist Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman's band.[4]

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.[2]


Tipton began playing piano alone at the Elks Club in Longview, Washington, in 1951.[2] In Longview, he started the Billy Tipton Trio, which included Dick O'Neil on drums, and Kenny Richards (and later Ron Kilde) on bass.[2] The trio gained local popularity.

Tipton (center) with the trio

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.[2] 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.[2] Among the pieces performed were "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", "Willow Weep for Me", "What'll I Do", and "Don't Blame Me".[2] In 1957, the albums sold 17,678 copies, a "respectable" sum for a small independent record label.[2]

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 opening for fellow musician Liberace. Tops Records also invited the trio to record four more albums.[2][5] Tipton declined both offers, choosing instead to move to Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a talent broker and the trio performed weekly.[2][5]

In the late 1970s, worsening arthritis forced Tipton to retire from music.[6]

Personal life[edit]

Tipton was never legally married, but five women called themselves Mrs. Tipton during his life.[3] In 1934,[3] Tipton began living with a woman named Non Earl Harrell.[7] The relationship ended in 1942.[7][8] Tipton's sex was reportedly concealed from the four women who would later call themselves "Mrs. Tipton".[3] 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.[2]

Tipton's next relationship, with a singer known only as "June", lasted for several years.[8] 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".[5][9] In 1954, Tipton's relationship with Cox ended, and he then entered a relationship with a woman named Maryann.[8] The pair moved to Spokane, Washington, in 1958. Maryann later stated that in 1960, she discovered that Tipton had become involved with nightclub dancer Kathleen "Kitty" Kelly.[8]

Tipton and Kelly settled down together in 1961.[8] They adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William;[5] the adoptions were not legally recognised.[10] After they separated around 1977, Tipton resumed a relationship with Maryann.[8] Maryann reportedly discovered Tipton's birth certificate and asked Tipton about it once, but was given no reply other than a "terrible look".[8]

Death, post-mortem outing, and aftermath[edit]

In 1989, 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, left untreated, was fatal. On January 21, 1989, his son William called emergency services. While paramedics were trying to save Tipton's life, they, alongside Tipton's son William, discovered he was born 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".[1][5] Later, following financial offers from the media, Kelly and one of their sons went public with the story.[11] The first newspaper article was published the day after Tipton's funeral and it was quickly picked up by wire services. Stories about him appeared in a variety of papers, including tabloids such as National Enquirer[12] and Star[13] as well as People,[14][15] The New York Times[16] and The Seattle Times.[10] Members of Tipton's family made talk show appearances as well.[13][11][17]

Tipton left 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.[11] A court upheld the first will, and William inherited almost everything, with John and Scott receiving one dollar each.[18] 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.[19] Two of his adopted sons changed their names not long after learning of Tipton's assigned gender, as they felt Tipton behaved deceptively.[10]

Works inspired by Tipton[edit]


  • Sweet Georgia Brown (LP). Billy Tipton Trio. Los Angeles: Tops Records. 1957. OCLC 55858361. L1522.
  • Hi-Fi on Piano (LP). New York: Tops Records. 1957. OCLC 15877358. L1534.


  1. ^ a b Lehrman, Sally (May–June 1997). "Billy Tipton: Self-Made Man". Stanford Today Online. Archived from the original on February 18, 2007. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Blecha, Peter (September 17, 2005). "Tipton, Billy (1914-1989): Spokane's Secretive Jazzman". HistoryLink. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
  3. ^ a b c d e Slape, Leslie (April 23, 2006). "Most Notorious — Billy Tipton was a self-made man". The Daily News. Longview, Washington. Retrieved December 16, 2018.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ a b c d e 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.
  6. ^ Middlebrook, Diane (1999). Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. Houghton Mifflin. pp. 252–255. ISBN 978-0-395-95789-9.
  7. ^ a b Adams, Cecil (June 5, 1998). "What's the story on the female jazz musician who lived as a man?". The Straight Dope. Archived from the original on February 18, 2007. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g 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.
  9. ^ Vollers, Maryanne (May 18, 1998). "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton". Salon.com. Archived from the original on May 16, 2007. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
  10. ^ a b c Karen Dorn Steele (December 10, 2008). "Judge: Billy Tipton's "Sons" can inherit their "Mother's" Estate". The Seattle Times. Retrieved July 22, 2020.
  11. ^ a b c Clark, Doug (March 5, 1989). "Billy Tipton's Estate". The Spokesman-Review. Archived from the original on July 28, 2009. Retrieved December 9, 2008.
  12. ^ Middlebrook, Diane (1999). Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. Houghton Mifflin. p. 309. ISBN 978-0-395-95789-9.
  13. ^ a b Boss, Kit (April 6, 1989). "The Strange Story of Billy Tipton". Sun Sentinel. Retrieved July 22, 2020.
  14. ^ "Death Discloses Billy Tipton's Strange Secret: He Was a She – Vol. 31 No. 7". People. February 20, 1989. Archived from the original on July 10, 2015. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  15. ^ Brubach, Holly (June 28, 1998). "Swing Time". The New York Times. Retrieved February 1, 2007.
  16. ^ AP Staff (February 2, 1989). "Musician's Death at 74 Reveals He was a Woman". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2020.
  17. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: Billy Tipton...the Truth Behind the Man. Video Disorder. February 21, 2018. Retrieved July 22, 2020 – via YouTube.
  18. ^ Yiannis, John (July 30, 2016). "Billy Tipton". GayCultureLand. Retrieved July 23, 2020.
  19. ^ "Family Secrets Revealed: Death Reveals Secret". discovery.com. Archived from the original on May 2, 2012. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  20. ^ Drake, Sylvie (February 19, 1990). "Stage Review: 'Stevie' Has Jazz and Drama, but Lacks a Subtext". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
  21. ^ TV News Desk Staff (February 11, 2020). "Stage and Screen Actress Paula Kelly Dies at 77". Broadway World. Retrieved July 22, 2020.
  22. ^ "The Video Dead: Brotherhood of the Dead". Gasoline Magazine. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved April 11, 2007.
  23. ^ "Soita minulle Billy". www.jurkka.fi (in Finnish). Archived from the original on February 20, 2017. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  24. ^ "Stage / Kotimainen ohjelmisto: Soita minulle Billy" (in Finnish). Archived from the original on August 6, 2012. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  25. ^ Middlebrook, Diane (April 11, 2013). "The Double Life of Billy Tipton". Allegro. 113 (4). ISSN 0002-5704. OCLC 3952697. Retrieved December 8, 2020 – via Local 802 AFM.
  26. ^ Tipton, Billy; Kreitzer, Carson; Criswell, Kim; Sadovy, Liza; Colquhoun, Christopher; Pearson, James; Englishby, Paul (1998). The slow drag : [a jazz musical] : original London cast. JAY Productions Ltd. OCLC 40522449.
  27. ^ Dalglish, Darren (November 15, 1997). "The Slow Drag". London Theatre Guide. Retrieved December 8, 2020.
  28. ^ Smith, Ali (January 16, 2016). "Ali Smith on Trumpet by Jackie Kay: a jazzy call to action". The Guardian. Retrieved February 2, 2020.
  29. ^ a b Bream, Jon (January 31, 2017). "Review: Cabaret darling McKay sings/tells odd tale of jazz musician Billy Tipton". Star Tribune. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  30. ^ Mullen, Pat (July 30, 2020). "'Inconvenient Indian', 'New Corporation', 'No Ordinary Man' Rep Canadian Docs in TIFF Line-up". Point of View.

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