Nellie’s Billy

By David Noh – Gay City News

NOH-tipton-ISOne of the great enigmas in the music world, William Lee “Billy” Tipton (1914 – 1989) was an American jazz musician and bandleader, who, it was discovered after his death, was born a woman. Named Dorothy Louise Tipton at birth in Oklahoma, he took his father’s name, “Billy,” when he started his music career and bound his breasts and stuffed his pants to pass when he performed. By 1940, he was living as a man in private as well as public life, and no one, apart from a couple of cousins and perhaps his lovers, knew his secret. He toured the country with different bands, eventually forming the Billy Tipton Trio, which was signed by Tops Records in 1957 and recorded two moderately successful albums.

The band was offered a permanent position at a Reno hotel and more Tops recordings, but Tipton decided to move to Spokane, Washington, to work as a talent broker and lead his trio as a local club’s house band. He had many paramours, but the chief one was a stripper named Kitty Kelly with whom he adopted three sons. They split up and he took custody of the boys, moving into a mobile home and living in poverty. By the late 1970s, arthritis forced him into retirement from music, and in 1989 he died from a hemorrhaging ulcer.

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