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Billy Tipton

Billy Tipton was a jazz musician who achieved only modest regional success in the 40's and 50's.
His career included live radio shows with Big Bands and evolved into jazz quartets and trios
playing in night clubs. In his 74 years, in addition to being a band leader and a booking agent,
he was a husband 5 times and adopted three children. After he died in 1989 in Spokane,
a coroner revealed that he was much more, and the mysterious story ran wild on the
wire services: Billy Tipton was a woman.

It seems that Tipton's decision to adopt a male disguise was likely motivated, at least at first,
by practical reasons: It was the depression, people were desperate for work, and it was
especially difficult for women to get work playing in jazz bands. So, at 19, Dorothy Tipton began
cross-dressing to get a job in a band. She cut her hair, put on men's clothing, bound her breasts
and re-christened herself Billy Tipton, eventually fooling 5 wives and the world for more than
50 years. Tipton left no letters of explanation, so we can only speculate on what drove her,
but we can learn much of what there is to know from a biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook
called "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton."


"Sweet Georgia Brown"
Topps LP 1522, circa 1955

 what is this thing called love
 sweet georgia brown
 don't blame me
 begin the beguine
 sit right down and write myself a letter
 september in the rain
 bernie's tune
 take the "A" train
 under a bucket of love
 the man i love
 willow weep for me

Click on a song title to hear it;
or on the to download a MP3 song file

 "Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi On Piano"
Topps LP 1534, circa 1956

 can't help lovin' dat man
 these foolish things
 what'll i do
 the world is waiting for the sunrise
 you go to my head
 christopher columbus
 begin the beguine
 if i had you
 blue skies
 stars fell on alabama

Given what we know now, the liner notes are amusing




Songs About Billy Tipton

I've only found a handful of songs written about Billy Tipton.
If you know of more, please let me know. Click on the titles to hear them.

Phranc - Tipton ("Positively Phranc," 1991)
Jill Sobule - Billy's Thing (unreleased, 2002)
Video Dead - Legend of Billy Tipton ("Brotherhood of the Dead," 2005)
Steve Schalchlin - Brilliant Masquerade (unreleased, 2007)
San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus - Brilliant Masquerade ("Creating Harmony," 2008)
Miami Gay Men's Chorus - Brilliant Masquerade (live at GALA, 2012)
Pasheen - Cross Dress ("The Big Purr," 2011)

The Phranc song file above begins with an introduction by
her to the song, taken from my September 2005 interview.


Jill Sobule's song remains unreleased, but is not difficult to find on the web.
And the heavy metal "Legend of Billy Tipton," by Video Dead, I guess is a tribute;
I often have trouble understanding lyrics in that genre.

Steve Schalchlin wrote "Brilliant Masquerade" about Billy Tipton,
and it's already been recorded by two choruses. He's well known
for the musicals written with his partner Jim Brochu, such as
"The Last Session," and "The Big Voice: God or Merman," and
his solo project "New World Waking."

The most recent song is by a self-proclaimed Diva, known as Pasheen.
It's called "Cross Dress," and is from her 2011 CD "The Big Purr."


Honorable Mention:

"The Slow Drag," was a 1998 musical starring Kim Criswell, and included jazz standards (no songs about Tipton).
It had a plot inspired by Tipton's story with the lead character named Johnny Christmas. Of course just
listening to the CD gives no sense at all of the story you could see during a performance.

The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet
was a Seattle area band taking their name to honor Tipton. Under that name they were active from 1989 through 2002, when the name was changed to Tipton's Sax Quartet. Founding members included Amy Denio, Jessica Lurie, Marjorie de Muynck, and John Otto.

As a side note, at the time of its founding Otto was named Babs Helle and performed with them until 1990. Per Wiki he coined the group's name, and has gone on to become a transgender activist. Pam Barger (earlier of Two Nice Girls) played drums on at least two of their early CDs. In their career under both names they have released ten albums. I have only three in my collection and do not know if any songs on other CDs were actually about Billy Tipton.