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Play it Billy!
March 19, 2007 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Billy Tipton (1914-1989) was a moderately popular jazz musician who happened to have been born a girl and lived as a man. In retrospect, some see Billy as a woman pragmatically trying to make it in a male dominated field, others see Billy as clearly transexual. If you like jazz of the 30's and 40's, forget Billy's gender for a moment and take a listen to Billy's playing! For more backstory, biographer Diane Middlebrook has posted a timeline of Tipton's life. More recently, Tipton has inspired jazz ensemble The Tiptons launches sound, a novel, a few plays and butch/punk/queer director Silas Howard is working on a film. Oh, and here's WP.
posted by serazin (22 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Tipton's story is endlessly facinating, but what never ever ceases to completely astoud me was that he was married to 5 different women, not one of which knew he was physically a woman. Not one. Can you even imagine??
posted by tristeza at 5:30 PM on March 19, 2007


Tipton's story is indeed an amazing one. Glad you posted this.

And regarding the wonderful sax quartet, The Tiptons, I'd like to take this opportunity to add a link to key member Amy Denio's site. Amy is not only a great sax player, she also has a fantastic voice and is a great composer as well. And plays a whole hell of a bunch of other instruments... She's massive! I think there's a lot of folks here at MeFi who would love her music.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:51 PM on March 19, 2007


Well ... actually, most likely three of them didn't know he was physically a women. The first one Billy probably started dating when still dressing as a woman and remained with for a while while dressing as a man, and the second one may or may not have been a lesbian who thought Billy was just a cross dresser before he started passing full-time.

The next three only knew Billy as a man; one, however, apparently eventually put the clues together and figured it out years after they had broken up. Billy definitely had sex with at least one and almost certainly two of them; his last wife claims they never had sex, but some of their letters to each other sometimes imply otherwise.

And, yeah, the musical I'm working on about Billy's life is called "Under Wraps".
posted by kyrademon at 5:57 PM on March 19, 2007


Fun Billy Tipton LP cover (that's him on the right).
posted by mediareport at 6:12 PM on March 19, 2007


I'm stunned that this story isn't more widely known (or maybe I'm just assuming that because I hadn't heard of him, no one else had either). A shame there's no autobiography out there; I'm dying to know how Billy would have described his own life.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 6:17 PM on March 19, 2007


[oops, it's at a couple of the other links already, didn't click all of them first, sorry]

It's an amazing story, thanks for the post.
posted by mediareport at 6:17 PM on March 19, 2007


I'm stunned that this story isn't more widely known (or maybe I'm just assuming that because I hadn't heard of him, no one else had either).

I think you are just assuming that. I've known about Tipton for a long time now, and I know a lot of other musicians who are very familiar with Tipton's story. Maybe outside of the world of music, though, Tipton is not so widely known? Now that I think about it, I guess musicians mostly hang out with other musicians, so our collective wisdom (?) pretty much stays within our own circles...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:46 PM on March 19, 2007


kyrademon - thanks for the info! Stories about Tipton (that I've seen, so not too many) always seem to gloss over this part, and I've never gotten a good idea of what really happened.
posted by tristeza at 7:16 PM on March 19, 2007


I'd never heard of him, along with an Arkful of other interesting things. Great post, this is why I read Metafilter.
posted by recurve at 7:20 PM on March 19, 2007


I'd only heard of him because I took a college course on the history of jazz.
posted by danb at 7:21 PM on March 19, 2007


Well ... actually, most likely three of them didn't know he was physically a women.

I have to admit I have trouble buying that, but it dosen't really matter since it's still quite a story.. I remember when the story broke back in '89, seeing it on TV.
posted by jonmc at 7:25 PM on March 19, 2007


FWIW, The Tiptons were originally known as The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet.

Seconding the Amy Denio props, she's awesome.
posted by intermod at 7:26 PM on March 19, 2007


I had a lover once who was not comfortable with her female body (I'll switch to the male pronoun now because he has since transitioned and is living as a man). My experience with him leads me to believe that it would be possible for Tipton's wife or wives not to know he was female-bodied even if they were having sex. The sex with my ex was among the hottest of my life, but there was no touching him and he never took his shirt off--he was amazing at ratcheting up the tension and heat while keeping things at not-quite-arm's-length. Perhaps Tipton was a master of that art as well. For his wives' sake, I hope so.
posted by not that girl at 8:17 PM on March 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


My experience with him leads me to believe that it would be possible for Tipton's wife or wives not to know he was female-bodied even if they were having sex.

Maybe, but I still have to figure that there was at the very least some willful ignorance or something.
posted by jonmc at 9:02 PM on March 19, 2007


Yeah, not that girl, every time I read about Tipton, I try to imagine just what the hell was going on between the sheets at that house, and I come up with something like what you described. It is so interesting to me, though, that he pulled this off for so long and with so many women without explaining it like (I assume) your lover did. You know?

I'm just floored by the fact that someone could have sexual relationships with so many people, and with such intimacy, that involved "you will never touch or look at or feel my genitals, ever" with an explanation that wasn't really "true." It's amazing. He must have been a really incredible person (I mean, for this and for so many reasons...this double life thing is astounding).
posted by tristeza at 9:04 PM on March 19, 2007


I remember reading about this in the Enquirer or something. I remember quite a bit from the story: Kitty Kelly said Tipton told her he had been in a car accident and the dash of the car dropped into his lap, thereby effectively smashing his genitals and rendering him unable to have traditional het sex. Kelly apparently had just had a hysterectomy, so she was fine by that.

Apparently he wore some sort of rubber truss that looked vaguely medical. She was a stripper, he apparently treated her well to begin with, and she had been objectified and used by men in the past. If there was any willful ignorance on her part, I think I can see why.
posted by oflinkey at 9:21 PM on March 19, 2007


Great post. Thanks!
posted by miss lynnster at 9:59 PM on March 19, 2007


That said, the story's great but I hate to say... after listening to the mp3s I can kind of see why he wasn't wider known musically. His playing sounded a bit clunky and straight to me in comparison to other pianists of the time. He stuck to the melody line pretty straight and didn't seem to stray too far in his creative improvisation. He strayed a little, but not too much. (Unless there's something I'm missing, but I've listened to 4 different tunes now.)
posted by miss lynnster at 10:24 PM on March 19, 2007


what miss lynnster said on both counts. his best creative improvisation was quite possibly between the sheets.
posted by de at 10:35 PM on March 19, 2007


Sure are on the trans tip lately, huh?

It's odd when things start showing up all over. I've had three teachers mention Billy Tipton in, like, the last week.
posted by klangklangston at 11:26 PM on March 19, 2007


I'm struck by the scenario at the end of his life. His kids found out he was a woman as he lay dying in the hands of paramedics in a trailer park.

Can you say drama boys and girls?
posted by Parannoyed at 10:50 AM on March 20, 2007


Tiptons Sax Quartet home page

and for my money, Amy Denio is good, but Jessica Lurie is the shit. Check out the Living Daylights CDs.
posted by milnak at 8:59 PM on March 20, 2007


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