Billy Lee Tipton (born as Dorothy Lucille Tipton,[1] December 29, 1914 - January 21, 1989) was an American jazz pianist and saxophonist. Tipton became the subject of public interest posthumously when it was revealed that Tipton, who had lived for decades as a man, was biologically female.

Early life

Tipton was born in Oklahoma City and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where Tipton was raised by an aunt after Tipton's parents' divorce. After the divorce, Tipton rarely saw Tipton's father, G.W. Tipton, a pilot who sometimes took Tipton for airplane rides. As a high school student, Tipton became interested in music, especially jazz, and went by the nickname "Tippy". Tipton studied piano and saxophone, but school policies forbade girls to play in the school band, until Tipton returned for a senior year in Oklahoma and finally joined a band there.[2]

Early career

In 1933, Tipton began dressing as a man, which allowed Tipton to blend with the other members of the jazz bands with whom Tipton played in small Oklahoma bars. As Tipton began a more serious music career, Tipton began to identify with Tipton's father's nickname, Billy, and to present consistently as male, by breast-binding and packing. Living as a man made it possible for Tipton to continue a career in jazz, where opportunities for women were more limited. At first, Tipton only presented as male in performance, but by 1940 he was living full-time as a man.[2]

Tipton gradually gained success and recognition as a musician. In 1936, Tipton was the leader of a band playing on KFXR. In 1938, Tipton joined Louvenie’s Western Swingbillies, a band which played on KTOK and at Brown's Tavern. In 1940 Tipton was touring the Midwest playing at dances with Scott Cameron's band. In 1941 he began two and a half years playing at Joplin, Missouri's Cotton Club with George Mayer's band, then toured for a time with Ross Carlyle, then played for two years in Texas.[2]

In 1949, Tipton began touring the Pacific Northwest with George Mayer. 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".[2] The trio's signature song was "Flying Home," performed in a close imitation of Benny Goodman's band.

As George Mayer's band became more successful, they began getting more prestigious work, performing with The Ink Spots, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and Billy Eckstine at the Boulevard Club in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.[2]

Later career

File:Tipton Plays HI-Fi.jpg

The cover of the Billy Tipton Trio album "Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano"

Tipton began playing piano alone at the Elks club in Longview, Washington. In Longview, he started the Billy Tipton Trio, which consisted of Tipton on piano, Dick O'Neil on drums, and Kenny Richards (and later Ron Kilde) on bass. The trio grew more successful locally, until a talent scout from Tops Records heard them play at King's Supper Club, in Santa Barbara, California. Richards later said that he had no idea that Tipton was anything other than male. With Tops Records, the Billy Tipton Trio recorded two albums, "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano," both released early in 1957. The albums were Tipton versions of standards including "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.[1][2]

After the albums' success, the Billy Tipton Trio was offered a position as house band at the Holiday Hotel, in Reno, Nevada. Tipton declined the offer to go to Reno, and also ignored an offer from Tops Records to record four more albums. He moved instead to Spokane, Washington, working as a talent broker and playing with his trio every week at Allen's Tin Pan Alley. He played mainly swing standards, and not the jazz he preferred, but occasionally worked a little jazz into the performances. His performances included skits in which, in the vaudeville tradition, he imitated celebrities like Liberace and Elvis Presley. In some of these sketches, he played a little girl, and though he never impersonated an adult woman, he did make jokes about homosexuality.[2]

He finished his career in Spokane, his trio playing as the house band at Allen's Tin Pan Alley as he mentored young musicians at the Dave Sobol Theatrical Agency. Billy Tipton retired from music in the 1970s, when he found it difficult to play piano with increasing arthritis.

Family life

Early in Tipton's career, Tipton cross-dressed only professionally, and still lived as a woman in private. Tipton spent those early years living with a woman named Non Earl Harrell, in a relationship which other musicians thought of as lesbian. The relationship ended in 1942.[3][4] Tipton's next relationship, with a singer known only as "June," lasted for several years.[4]

For seven years, Tipton lived with Betty Cox, who was 19 years old when they became involved. According to Betty, they had a normal heterosexual relationship. He kept the secret of his biological sex by telling Betty that he had been in a serious car accident which required him to bind his chest to protect broken ribs, and which had badly damaged his genitals. This is the story he would also tell subsequent women with whom he was involved. Betty remembered him as "the most fantastic love of my life.[5]"

After Betty ended their relationship, he quickly became involved with Maryann Catanach, a prostitute. According to Maryann, theirs was a normal sexual relationship, and she did not know that Tipton was biologically female, since he dressed in private, had sex only in the dark, and preferred to touch, not to be touched.[4] Two of Tipton's female cousins were the only persons privy to both sides of Tipton's life, and Tipton kept in contact with them for years.

In 1960, he ended a relationship with a prostitute to be married to nightclub dancer and stripper Kitty Kelly (later known as Kitty Oakes), who was known professionally as "The Irish Venus." Tipton was never legally married, but several women had drivers' licenses identifying them as Mrs. Tipton. Kitty said that they never had sex but had an otherwise normal life. They were involved with their local PTA and with the Boy Scouts. They adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William. Although Kitty denied having any knowledge that she was married to a transman, John and Scott did not believe her. William described Tipton as a good father who loved to go on Scout camping trips.[1]

Their adopted sons became difficult to manage during their adolescence. Because of the couple's ongoing arguments over how they should raise the boys, Tipton left Kitty, moved into a mobile home with their sons, and resumed his old relationship with Maryann. He remained there until his death a year later.[4]

Death and its aftermath

Tipton finished his life living in poverty in a mobile home park. In 1989, at the age of 74, he believed that he was suffering the effects of emphysema and refused to call a doctor. What he was really suffering from was a hemorrhaging ulcer, which, untreated, was fatal. It was while paramedics were trying to save Tipton's life that his watching son, William, learned for the first time that his father was biologically female, a secret which the coroner soon revealed to his family.

Tipton was pronounced dead at Valley General Hospital, and Kitty arranged for his body to be cremated in an attempt to keep Billy's secret. But one of Billy's sons gave an interview, and the story was seized upon by the media, who eagerly told the story despite Kitty's objections. The first newspaper article was published the day after Tipton's funeral, and was quickly picked up by wire services. There were rumors of a movie biography, and stories about Tipton appeared in a variety of papers including tabloids like National Enquirer and Star, and more serious papers like New York Magazine and The Seattle Times. Tipton's family made talk-show appearances.[6]

The family was split by disagreements after Tipton's death. In his will, Tipton left most of his belongings to William, and a dollar each to John and Scott.[7]


  • The 1991 song "Tipton" by folksinger 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.[8]
  • The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet is a successful all-woman music group from the United States, and named in tribute to Billy Tipton. More recently they changed the name of the group to just The Tiptons.
  • "Stevie Wants to Play the Blues" was a play based on Tipton's life by Eduardo Machado performed in Los Angeles.
  • "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, a novel based on Tipton's life, is by Jackie Kay.
  • "The Opposite Sex is Neither," a theatrical revue by 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.[9]
  • The song "Hot Topic" on Le Tigre's self-titled debut pays tribute to dozens of female visual artists, musicians, writers, feminists and others who have inspired them, including Tipton.


  • Sweet Georgia Brown (1957)
  • Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano (1957)


  • Middlebrook, Diane Wood (1998). Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 320 pages. ISBN 0-395-95789-3. 


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Smith, Dinitia. "Billy Tipton Is Remembered With Love, Even by Those Who Were Deceived", The New York Times, 1998-06-02. Retrieved on 2007-02-01. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Blecha, Peter. "Tipton, Billy (1914-1989): Spokane's Secretive Jazzman", HistoryLink, 2005-09-17. Retrieved on 2007-02-01. 
  3. Adams, Cecil. "What's the story on the female jazz musician who lived as a man?", The Straight Dope, 1998-06-05. Retrieved on 2007-02-01. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Susannah, Francesca. "Women Like That: The Transformation of Dorothy Tipton", Out in the Mountains. Retrieved on 2007-02-01. 
  5. Vollers, Maryanne. "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton", Salon Books, 1998-05-18. Retrieved on 2007-02-01. Archived from the original on 2000-06-11. 
  6. Lehrman, Sally. "Billy Tipton: Self-Made Man", Stanford Today Online, May/June 1997. Retrieved on 2007-02-01. 
  7. Brubach, Holly. "Swing Time", The New York Times, 1998-06-28. Retrieved on 2007-02-01. 
  8. Yahoo! Movies
  9. "The Video Dead: Brotherhood of the Dead", Gasoline Magazine. Retrieved on 2007-04-11. 

External links

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