Writing His Own Tune: Billy Tipton’s Secret Surprised Even Those Who Knew Him Best
FEB. 24, 2012
By: Brook Ellingwood
KCTS 9 Staff
The Tiptons currently are touring Europe with a lineup of four saxophone-playing women and a man on drums. First formed over 20 years ago, the band originally went by the name The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet. In their name, The Tiptons have helped keep alive one story that shows how gender can defy labels and sometimes is more than a simple male/female dichotomy.
Billy Tipton was a jazz pianist who began his career during the Great Depression. He toured around the country with other jazzmen – and they almost invariably were men – playing swing music. In the 1950s he formed his own small group, the Billy Tipton Trio, and recorded two albums of standards. Then he moved to Spokane, where he spent the next decades running a booking agency for musicians, while still performing weekly until arthritis made it too difficult.
Tipton was married five times, or at least there were five women who at times called themselves Mrs. Tipton without the benefit of a legal wedding. With the last of his wives, he adopted three children and became involved in the PTA and camping trips with the Boy Scouts.
One of Tipton’s sons was with him at home in 1989 when he fell seriously ill. Paramedics arrived and, attempting to revive Tipton, removed some of his clothing. The question they then asked took his son by surprise: “Did your father ever have a sex change?”
Billy Tipton’s life story was about to be rewritten.
Dorothy Lucille Tipton grew up in jazz-infused Kansas City as the daughter of a well-off family. Musically talented, she was unable to find work in the male dominated bands of the time. So, recalled family members interviewed after Tipton’s death, she slicked her short hair back, flattened her breasts with bandages, wore a codpiece under her pants and found work performing as a man. Most of the musicians she worked with in her early career knew her as a woman offstage, but by 1940 she had relocated to the West Coast and had begun living as a man in all aspects of her life.
While some of Billy Tipton’s early girlfriends may have known him as a woman, in 1946 he began a relationship with a woman who believed he was a man for the seven years they lived as man and wife. Billy told her he wrapped bandages around his chest as a consequence of a car accident that damaged his ribs, and that he was so self-conscious about the way his body looked as a result that she must never see him naked. Although he was intimate with his wives, no one would see Billy Tipton’s body until a paramedic tried to save his life 43 years later.
After the Billy Tipton Trio’s first two records sold well, they were offered a spot as the house band at a Reno hotel, plus a deal in Los Angeles for four more records. Billy chose instead to move away from these entertainment centers and settle in Spokane.
Following his death, Billy Tipton’s life was revealed as a set of Russian nesting dolls. The outermost one was a pleasant yet unremarkable heterosexual man. Inside was a cross-dressing woman who had same-sex relationships. Inside that was a talented girl wanting to play music professionally at a time when the style was big bands presenting a visual image of men all dressed the same.
From the outside, it is easy to want to find the “true” story of Billy Tipton. Which one of the dolls is the “right” one? Is this a story of gender? Of sexuality? Of equal rights? Having only become known after his death, the one thing that could have shed light on these mysteries was gone: Billy Tipton himself.
Perhaps, if Billy Tipton’s secrets hadn’t been secret we would find a simple way to understand his unusual life. On reflection, perhaps Billy Tipton’s story can no more be reduced to a label than any of our stories can. He became a master of presenting himself to the world the way he chose to be seen, a skill many of us aspire to achieve. When our physical bodies match how we dress and act, picking a style of behavior and dress is perfectly normal. Billy Tipton’s story raises the question of why it should be otherwise when they don’t match.
Tipton’s choice to live as a man opened some doors but may have limited him in some ways. He walked away from the biggest opportunities of his music career in favor of near obscurity. But, remove the fact of his biological gender, and his choice to dedicate his life to being a husband and father rather than a touring musician sounds like the ending to a heartwarming family movie. That may have been the moment when Billy Tipton quit being a set of Russian nesting dolls and simply began to live his life without worrying about a label for it.
At the time of his death, Billy Tipton’s story received significant press coverage and in the decades since has continued to fascinate. Stanford University professor Diane Middlebrook wrote a Tipton biography entitled “Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton.” Interviewed after the book’s publication she rejected the idea that Tipton could be reduced to a label. “I don't think she thought she was born in the wrong body. That's a contemporary narrative. She's not a lesbian, because the women she was with didn't know she was female. She occupied an undefinable space. She was someone who worked creatively in the gap between biology and gender.”
In a late 1990s interview one of Tipton’s sons labeled him like this: "He was the only father I ever knew. He was there for us. He didn't go out and get drunk and beat on us. We had a close relationship.“ Billy’s last wife also recalled him fondly: “I was taught to judge the person head on, as they were. Billy was funny, gentle as a human being. We liked the same kind of music. We liked each other... Instead of treating this as a grand deception, don't you think it's funny?”
Billy Tipton’s life is remembered by most for the questions it raised about gender and sexuality. But the only labels that comfortably fit have little to do with these questions.
Billy Tipton: Father, husband, musician.
Further Reading and References
Tipton, Billy (1914-1989): Spokane's Secretive Jazzman | Historylink.org
Billy Tipton Is Remembered With Love, Even by Those Who Were Deceived | NYTimes.com
Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton | Amazon.com
Listen to Music by the Billy Tipton Trio | queermusicheritage.us
Purchase Music by The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet | Amazon.com
Purchase Music by The Tiptons | Amazon.com