Tipton, Billy (1914–1989)
Tipton, Billy (1914–1989)
Cross-dressing American jazz pianist, saxophonist, and founder of the Billy Tipton Trio, whose sexual identity was not discovered until her death. Born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on December 29, 1914; died in Spokane, Washington, on January 21, 1989; daughter of George Tipton (an aviator) and Reggie Tipton; studied organ, piano, and saxophone in school; married at least five times, including Betty Cox and Kitty Kelly; children: (adopted three sons with Kitty Kelly) John, Scott, and William.
When Billy Tipton died, one obituary writer observed, "He gave up everything. There were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician." In fact, Billy Tipton had given up far more than any fellow musicians suspected. Notes Leslie Gourse, "There was an unwritten code in the jazz world, that women just didn't get hired." Tipton changed her name and her clothes, acquired a Social Security card as a man, and traded in a traditional life in order to play the music she loved. "To pass as a man," notes Dinitia Smith in The New York Times, "Dorothy bound her breasts with Ace bandages and wore a prosthetic device. Later she would tell people that she wore the bandages because of a childhood accident in which her ribs were broken." So well kept was Tipton's secret that the women he married maintained that they had no knowledge that their husband had not been born a man.
Born on December 29, 1914, Tipton grew up in Kansas City and loved jazz. She learned to play the piano, organ, and sax, but quickly concluded that a woman could never be successful in the jazz world. Assuming the persona of a man, Tipton added his tenor voice to a group known as the Banner Cavaliers. He performed with the Jack Teagarden, Russ Carlyle, and Scott Cameron bands.
In 1951, the musician formed the Billy Tipton Trio, performing as the group's leader with slicked-back hair and white dinner jacket. In a style which had tints of Benny Goodman's trio and quartet, the group played hits like "Exactly Like You," "All of Me," and "It's Only a Paper Moon." Two albums—Sweet Georgia Brown and Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano—were put out by the trio. One member of the group, singer and bass player Kenny Richards, would later note that he never had a clue that Tipton was anything but a man.
The women in Tipton's life were equally out of the know. Among them was 18-year-old Betty Cox whom Tipton met in 1946; they lived together as man and wife, complete with a sexual relationship, for seven years. Coming from a sheltered upbringing, Cox had never been exposed to discussions about sex. "Women didn't go around undressed," she noted. "You wore a robe. You didn't leave the lights on when you had sex." Tipton later met Kitty Kelly (now Kitty Oakes), a stripper, to whom he would write, "I love you with everything that is in me, and I only hope that I can make you happy for the rest of my life." They shared a home for many years and together adopted three sons. Writes Smith, "By all accounts, Tipton was an ideal father, a Scout master who loved to go on camping trips with his boys." When the couple separated due to growing tensions in the marriage, the boys went to live with Tipton. Following Billy's death, his son William would say, "He was the only father I ever knew…. He was there for us."
In his professional life, during 1958 Tipton turned down an opportunity for the big time—a recording contract and offer to open for Liberace in Reno. Diane Middlebrook, author of Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, notes that Tipton may have been concerned that wider visibility might bring with it the threat of exposure. Settling in Spokane, he played jazz and was employed in a theatrical agency where he worked as a booker and met Kitty Kelly. By the time of the couple's separation in 1981, Smith notes that he was "suffering from arthritis, emphysema and ulcers. What Ms. Middlebrook calls his 'lifelong trait of avoidance' had prevented him from going to a doctor."
Tipton died at the age of 74 on January 21, 1989, of a perforated ulcer. Middlebrook writes that by the time of death Tipton had removed the sex-concealing measures used throughout life. The paramedics arriving on the scene ripped open Tipton's shirt and asked his son William, "Did your father ever have a sex change?" Notes Middlebrook: "Billy had prepared to emerge from behind his screen like the Wizard of Oz, to dissolve the magic into wisdom, revealing by her nakedness in death that 'the difference' between men and women is largely in the eye of the beholder."
Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 20 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1980.
Smith, Dinitia. "One False Note in a Musician's Life," in The New York Times. June 2, 1998.
Middlebrook, Diane. Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. 1998.