When Billy Tipton died on January 21st 1989 he was penniless, living in a mobile home, and his ability to play piano or saxophone had been destroyed by years of ravaging arthritis. He led a very private life with only a small circle of friends in his adopted home-town, Spokane Washington. He and his jazz trio had disbanded years earlier. During their time they had played small joints, Fraternal Hall dances and cocktail lounges for little pay throughout the mid-west and west coast. Billy had only two recordings to show for his almost 50 years in music. Both albums had been released in 1957. Essentially his passing would have gone unnoticed by anyone except his loved ones and a handful of professional friends. The rest of us would never know a thing about him.
But as Billy lay on the floor of his kitchen dying of a hemorrhaged peptic ulcer a paramedic called by Billy’s son William (against Billy’s wishes) loosened Billy’s pajamas in order to try resuscitate him looked up at William and asked;
”Did your father ever have a sex change?”
That single question would make Billy Tipton one of the most talked-about jazz performers for the next few decades. It would also lead to public debates, books, research papers and magazine articles on gender, personal identity, transexualism, deception and an individual’s right to live as they wish.
Billy Tipton was pronounced dead when his body arrived at Valley General Hospital in Spokane Washington. Later the Medical Examiner told Billy’s family what the paramedic seems to have confirmed-that Billy had been born a female. In an attempt to keep this from the public Billy’s estranged wife Kitty arranged for his body to be cremated, But before the cremation occurred the local press had discovered the story. After financial offers from the media poured in 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. The story went around the world immediately
Billy Tipton had presented as a man for over 50 years, had been “married” five times (all of them were “common law” marriages) travelled non-stop with his trio and adopted three boys with his final wife. All of them, including Billy’s associates and friends swore they had no idea that Billy had been born female…not even his wives. Now the truth was out and the obscure pianist and bandleader became a “celebrity” after his death. It all made great fodder for the tabloids, talk radio and the bottom feeders in the media. But it also attracted attention from the “legitimate” media who pretended to seriously analyze and find answers to the question “Why would a woman live as a man for over 50 years, without telling anyone?” Even more misguided questions were presented and the statement that Billy Tipton had lived a “double life” were discussed. The first question seems a bit naïve but understandable in an age that didn’t fully understand transexualism. But claiming Billy Tipton had been leading a double-life was patently untrue. Billy had spent his adult life presenting himself as a man, had loving relationships with heterosexual women and had been a good father to his sons. He dressed every day as a man, and as far as anyone is able to tell, he believed he was a man. It’s ironic that Dave Sobol, a longtime friend and Billy’s agent had once called him “A perfect gentleman”. After Tipton’s death Sobol fretted “I couldn’t sleep for two days. For 40 years I knew Billy as a man, and now he’s a woman”. Such is the power the perception of gender-identity can have on individuals and on society in general.
Today most of us would accept this as leading the life of a transsexual, but almost 30 years since his death, there are people who believe being transsexual is a mental illness, a delusion, or simply being gay but not willing to admit it…presuming that people are willing to go through painful hormonal treatment, expensive surgery, marathon psychiatric examination and public demonization just so they might not be called “gay”. Even with that knowledge there are people who still believe that a transsexual could not be a transsexual while keeping the genitalia one is born with. Of course during Titpton’s lifetime most therapeutic options for transsexuals either did not exist, or were so expensive that they were out of reach of most people wishing for treatment. Even Christine Jorenson-the most well-know transgendered person up until Tipton-who was treated in Denmark had to obtain special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of hormone treatments and surgical operations in that country; and even though she’d gone through surgery and hormonal therapy in Denmark it would take even more surgeries to complete her transformation to the gender she felt she belonged to. It actually wasn’t much different than it is today, although candidates for sexual reassignment are subjected to long-term psychiatric evaluation and government permission is no longer needed in Denmark-or in the USA.
William Lee Tipton was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1914. He was assigned the gender female at the time of birth. The Tipton family soon moved to Kansas City Missouri, and despite his parents being somewhat estranged, the family was well-off and Billy had intermittent contact with his father, an airline pilot.. Tipton’s mother was far less gregarious than his father and when Billy was 14, his parents divorced, so he and his younger brother (ironically, named William) were sent off to live with their aunt. This would provide the only link with those who knew Billy’s story…or as much as anyone outside Billy could tell. His two cousins, Eilene and Madeline had known him as a girl growing up, and when Billy began dressing as a man it was they that helped him prepare. Throughout their lives they kept in contact with Billy, but never let on anything except what he wished to be known.
By the time Billy was 7 years old he was playing violin for home-recitations (dressed as a girl, of course). By the time he was in High School his love of jazz and the burgeoning sound of swing made it evident that he intended to make a career as a jazz player. It was about this time that Billy (as”Dorothy”) began calling himself “Tippy”...a name that conveyed the spirit of the jazz age. Later he began to study music at The Horner Conservatory of Music in Kansas City and then moved back to Oklahoma City to finish studies at Oklahoma Jr. A&M College. It was in 1933 that Billy began to seek work as a jazz musician. There are divergent stories about the reason Billy began dressing as a man. Some have postulated that jazz clubs and jazz ensembles would not hire a woman. But we know that Billy had previously played in jazz ensembles, and that many of the venues that featured jazz were considered either “seedy”, or smoky dens of “anything goes” None of this would preclude women playing jazz. Some have insisted that jazz is inherently misogynistic. This might come as news to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, Hazel Scott or Mary Osborne…all of whom found fame in the 1920s and 1930s in small jazz clubs.
Musician Red Kelly-who played for years with Woody Herman and is a legend in his own right-dismissed the theory that a woman could not get a job in the world of jazz.
“There weren’t a lot of women” he says“but there were plenty that were good, and highly respected”
Don Eagle, a Spokane musician and friend of Billy’s told reporters
“Everybody wants to leap on this idea that he was a girl who played piano and wanted to make it on the big scene. It’s kind of a cop out, isn’t it? I say this was actually a gender change.”
The claim that Billy Tipton’s decision to “become a man” to get jobs is questionable on it’s face. The jazz world had always been populated by women. Many would find fame precisely because they were women.
When musician’s jobs became sparse Billy in Oklahoma City, Billy went to Muskogee to crash on the floor of her aunt’s one-room apartment with two teenage cousins and a baby. These were the same cousins (Eilene and Madeline) who’d always known Billy’s story and helped him conceal his assigned gender in favor of him presenting as a male. Shortly after their help Billy returned to Oklahoma City.
Norma Teagarden, the sister of bandleader Jack Teagarden, also knew Billy as her mother Helen had run a boarding house in Oklahoma City that Billy stayed in. Norma and Billy-and Norma’s brother Jack-had become friends. Norma herself was a featured pianist and violinist with some of the biggest names in jazz; Ben Pollack, Matty Matlock, and Ray Bauduc. She was also a member of her brother’s big band. After Billy’s death Norma said that Billy’s
“decision to change gender actually was motivated as much by personal as career success“.
Norma went on to say;
“He wanted to “play in the front line” and he “just wanted to (wear) men’s clothes”. These are not the trademarks of living a “double life”since Billy maintained his persona as a man, and did not go back and forth between male and female depending on the circumstances. The term “double life” connotes willfull deception and manipulation. Even when Billy was involved in early lesbian relationships she did not hide it.
During the 1930s Billy was playing in bands and did not conceal the fact that he was engaged in an affair with a lesbian named “Non Earl” Harnell. It’s said that “Non Earl” had gotten her odd name because she was once married to a man named “Earl Harnell”. Non Earl was a “horse“on the dance marathon circuit, and an eccentric herself. Billy was wearing men’s clothing in his day-to- day life with her, but it’s been noted that when not onstage Billy took no care to bind his breasts or deny his assigned gender. Billy’s only biographer to date-Diane Ann Middlebrook-points out in her misleadingly named book “Suit’s Me; The Double Life of Bily Tipton” that Non Earl may have been the only “wife” of Tipton’s who knew Billy was physically born a woman, though later in his life one of Billy’s later estranged wives (Maryann) is thought to have found a birth certificate in the name of Dorothy Lucille Tipton after their parting. It’s said she confronted Billy asking him if he was actually a woman. Billy just looked on and did not answer.
Though Non Earl eventually returned to her ex-husband, for several years Non Earl and Billy passed themselves off as man and wife. Like Tipton, Non Earl was a show person, having made a name for herself as a “horse” on the sadistic dance-marathon circuit of the 1930s. Unlike Tipton’s future partners, Non Earl knew Billy was a woman. Cross-dressing wouldn’t have fazed the inveterate rule breaker Non Earl. She not only broke ground as a club dancer but she also passed off her much-younger girlfriend as her husband. She and a cross-dressing female radio station owner who gave Billy an early break are aptly used to suggest Tipton’s unconventional life was not entirely without precedent…especially in Oklahoma City, which is thought at the time to have had a large lesbian population. Later Billy and Non Earl moved to Joplin MO. where it’s thought that Billy dropped the “Dorothy” character altogether and began his nearly 50 years of living as man.
In 1936, Tipton was the leader of a band playing on Oklahoma City’s KFXR radio station. In 1938, Tipton joined Louvenie’s Western Swingbillies, a band that played on radio station KTOK (also Oklahoma City). Billy was also a regular entertainer at a hangout called Brown’s Tavern. By 1940 Billy 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 Missouri’s Cotton Club with George Meyer’s band, toured for a time with Ross Carlyle, then played for two years in Texas. It’s claimed that Billy toured with Billy Eckstein and Jack Teagarden, but Teagarden’s sister Norma says Billy never played in Teagarden’s band.
George Meyer’s band-along with Billy-began performing with bigger acts, including The Delta Rhythm Boys, The Ink Spots and the aforementioned Billy Eckstein at the Boulevard Club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. By 1938 he was working with bass player, Wayne Benson. All the while Billy continued to develop his male persona; he became a gentleman, and a heterosexual male, living as a typical 1940’s man would. But by the early 1940s Non Earl began to get bored “playing house” and left the relationship in 1941. After splitting with Non Earl Billy began creating his own history about an unhealed rib, an accident that had affected his genitals, and a vague, unspecified reason to explain why he wasn’t in the war and why he wore tight chest bindings.
According to author Francesca Susannah;
“After Non Earl, Billy cultivated a definite taste in women; young, beautiful, glamorous – the sort of women straight men drooled over. He got them too”. In 1943, she continues ,Billy “married” a woman known as “June”, who was 17 when they first met; Billy was 28. They lived together and traveled to Billy’s various gigs together for two or three years before they split up. June began to tell tales on Billy, that he was a hermaphrodite with a very small penis. At that time, hermaphrodite was often used as a euphemism for lesbian, but it’s impossible to guess if she meant that she knew he was a woman or if he explained away his vagina by claiming to be a hermaphrodite”.
By the time June left, Billy was already involved with an 18 year old woman named Betty. She was smitten with Billy, calling him “cute as a bug”. They “married” in 1943. Although the couple were sexually active Billy was able to hide the fact that he was born female. Their time together ended after about a decade and after Billy died Betty claimed she never had any idea that Billy was different from any other man.
Francesca Susannah goes on to write;
That marriage (with Betty) broke up in 1954, and almost immediately there was another woman in his life, Maryann, a classy call girl. She was a little older, thirty-three, but beautiful and glamorous. She did not guess that he (Billy) was a woman during their marriage, although they had sex and she was already experienced. When she was interviewed for a book about Billy, she said, ‘Honey, I can hardly wait to read your book. I thought it was a penis.’ Billy had unbreachable habits to avoid discovery. He locked the bathroom door when he bathed and dressed, he made love in the dark, and he was always the dominant partner. “You didn’t touch Billy,” Maryann explained”
While all these romantic ups and downs were happening Billy kept steady work as both a pianist and a saxophonist. George Meyer’s band-along with Billy-began performing with bigger acts, including The Delta Rhythm Boys, The Ink Spots and the aforementioned Billy Eckstein at the Boulevard Club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Finally, Billy decided to go solo. In 1951 he was playing at the Elks Club in Longview Washington. Shortly after this he formed The Billy Tipton Trio with Tipton on piano and occasionally on sax. Dick O’Neil was on drums and Kenny Richards on bass. Richards would later be replaced by Ron Kilde.
During a performance at King’s Supper Club in Santa Barbara, California, a talent scout from the small independent Tops Records heard Billy’s trio and offered them a contract. Reports vary about whether he scout was in the audience or saw a television recording of that night. This contract would lead to The Billy Tipton Trio recording two albums for Tops: “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano”, both of them released in 1957. The albums contained adequate but unoriginal covers of jazz and pop standards. They are the only real documentation of Billy’s skill-aside from a couple of acetates that had hurridly been recorded for radio in 1949. Listening to the albums makes it clear that the superlatives used in the media following Billy’s death were pure hyperbole. Billy was not the”well-known” innovative” or “influential talent” that that many in the media had proclaimed simply to embellish his story. The truth is both albums are “pleasant” but not much off the beaten track as far as originality. During 1957 Billy’s albums sold 17,678 copies- a”respectable” sum for a small independent label like Tops
After the albums’ modest reception The Billy Tipton Trio were invited to become the house band at the new Holiday Hotel opening in Reno, Nevada including an engagement backing Liberace. Tops Records also offered a contract that would allow the trio to record four more albums. Tipton turned both offers down. His bandmates were thoroughly discouraged at passing this chance up.
Instead of taking advantage of these offers Billy chose to move to Spokane, Washington along with his “wife” Maryann and the trio. Billy planned to work as a talent broker for his old friend Dave Sobol, who had hired him to play his hotel in Coeur d’Alene hotel several years before. Billy’s trio became the house band at Allen’s Tin Pan Alley in Spokane, performing weekly. The trio played swing standards rather than jazz, and their performances included skits and Billy’s impersonations of showmen like Liberace and Elvis Presley.
After moving to Spokane Billy and Marryann’s relationship fell apart and she left him in 1960; but true to Billy’s past behavior there was already someone waiting in the wings. His next partner was Katherine “Kitty” Kelly, a twice divorced dancer and west coast stripper who exuded glamor and sexuality. Her stage name was “The Irish Venus” taking advantage of her luxurious red hair. Kitty had had a tough life, and even ’til the end the pain continued. She was born to a 15-year-old mother in Middletown, Ohio. She never knew her father. She was raped and impregnated as a teenager and by 28, twice-divorced and stripping in nightclubs in Seattle and Spokane when she met the 47-year old Billy Tipton and “married” him. She took on the task of being a middle-class role model living along Spokane’s tree-lined Manito Bouleva
Billy and Kitty adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William. As parents they were involved with their local PTA and with the Boy Scouts. After Tipton’s death, Kitty gave several interviews about Billy and their relationship. In one she lamented on women breaking into the 1920s and 1930s music industry;
“He gave up everything… There were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician.”
Marian McPartland, the late jazz authority and NPR host of “Piano Jazz” commented on Kitty’s claim by musing;
“I can only say that if it’s true, this person must have been somebody with a great commitment to the music. Or maybe this was someone who just felt more comfortable as a man.
“Competing as a female jazz instrumentalist in the ’30s was difficult”, said McPartland, “but it was done, she said, noting that performers she admired such as Hazel Scott and Cleo Brown had overcome the adversities.
What McPartland failed to comment on-even though most of her listeners already knew-she herself had been a jazz performer both in the US and Europe during the 1930’s. Perhaps she was being modest, and didn’t want to stray from Billy’s own experiences
According to all three sons Billy was a generous, loving and exceptional father. In interviews after Billy’s death Kitty had nothing but good things to say about Billy even though they had been separated for ten years. Kitty would later re-marry and divorce. She then went by the name “Kitty” Oakes. Her estate and sons later became involved in a bitter family dispute involving the written vs. purported will of Billy Tiptonn and the house Kitty owned at her death (worth $300,000) as well as the rights to Billy’s story. Kitty was plagued by dementia during her last years and the state appointed her a guardian to oversee her finances. She died at age 73 in 2007 after her mind and body faltered and she was involuntarily committed to Eastern State Hospital.
We can never be certain of Billy’s inner motivations, except to say that he desperately wanted to be a jazz musician. It’s easy to pick apart and analyze why he lived as he did; but sometimes we should take each other at face value. Billy chose to live as a man. He chose to have long affairs and “marriages” with heterosexual women. He enjoyed being a father. Billy left no letter or other clue as to why he chose to live as he did; but who are we to question it? Back in his prime the public were not aware of transexualism. Maybe Billy didn’t even know about it exactly. Instead of the initial shock the media and the public feigned maybe the simple truth was and is that Billy Tipton was a very brave individual. That he didn’t lead a “double life”…he led HIS life. It’s as possible as not that Billy didn’t live a sad closeted life that caused him to hide his real self…maybe he was quite happy with who he was and should provide inspiration for all of us. Maybe he was exactly who he appeared to be.
Since Billy’s death he’s been memorialized with
-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” published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.
-“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 the character of 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.
-“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)
– Jorge Orfão wrote “Female Masculinities: The Tipton/Moody Transgender Case“an MA Dissertation in Feminist Studies presented at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra, coordinated by Professor Doctor Adriana Bebiano November 8, 2012.
-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.
-Dennis R. White. Sources; Kathryn Robinson “The Double Life of Billy Tipton” (The Inlander, June 17, 1998); Queer Music History (2003, queermusicheritage.com/feb2003bt.html); Diane Wood Middlebrook “Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (Mariner Books, June 16, 1999); Dinitia Smith “One False Note in a Musicians Life, Billy Tipton is Remembered With Love, Even By Those Who Were Deceived” The New York Times, June 2, 1998); Karen Dorn Steele “Billy, Kitty’s Strange Story Not Over Yet” (The Spokesman-Review [Spokane WA] Jun 8, 2008); Chris Park “Billy Lee Tipton (1914-89) – Jazz Musician” (The LGBT History Project, 16 February 2012); Hannah Judge “Navigating Gender: Billy Tipton and the Jazz Culture of Masculinity” (University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, May 2015) Laura Mills “Billy Tipton and The Question of Gender (Making Queer History, September 9. 2017); “Diane Wood Middlebrook, author of Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton” interview (Jerry Jazz Musician, August 29, 2000); Amy Denio (correspondence with the author, December 3, 2017); Wikipedia entry “Billy Tipton”
This is the best single essay about Billy Tipton that I’ve come across. Excellent writing!
I cherish Tipton’s two Tops albums – not because they’re great music (which they aren’t), but because they represent a person unabashedly being themselves. And how exciting they must have been for Tipton at that time in his life – an excitement probably tempered with sadness as time went on and he was never really able to break out of the second tier of the music/entertainment world.
I approved your comment when I received it, but I didn’t take the time to write back and say thank you for your kind words. I love interviewing the people I write about, and it was disappointing not to be able to talk to Billy about his music and his career. I wouldn’t have addressed anything to do with gender. He wished to keep it private, and of course, I would have respected that while he was alive.
I agree that there may have been sadness that he couldn’t take his career to the next level, but I think the more we know about his story, the more inspirational it becomes. In that way, he is even more important as a cultural and social icon than as a musician. I’m not sure if he would have liked that or not, but I think his remarkable story has empowered transgender people and their allies, and I consider myself one of those allies!
Dennis R. White