Billy Tipton lived life as a man, performing as a jazz star, appearing to have a wife and adopting three sons. But death at age 74 revealed to fans, friends and family that Billy Tipton was a woman.
Donald Ball, director of Ball & Dodd Funeral Home, said Tuesday that Tipton, who died last month of a bleeding ulcer, was a woman.
Ball said he informed Jon Clark, one of Tipton’s adopted sons, that his “father” was really female so Clark would not have to learn it from the death certificate.
“I was just trying to break it to him gently,” Ball said Tuesday night. “I just didn’t want him to find out in a public office. It’s been a very difficult thing to handle.”
“I’m just lost,” Clark told the Spokesman-Review newspaper. He said he learned the truth last Wednesday, four days after Tipton’s death.
“No one knew,” said Kitty Oakes, the woman Tipton had said he married in 1960. Oakes, who separated from Tipton 10 years ago, refused to talk about their life together, saying Tipton died with the secret and that should be respected.
“The real story about Billy Tipton doesn’t have anything to do with gender. He was a fantastic, almost marvelous, and generous person,” she said.
“He’ll always be Dad,” Clark said. “But I think that he should have left something behind for us, something that would have explained the truth.”
Oakes told funeral directors that Tipton was born Dec. 29, 1914, in Oklahoma City and was raised in Kansas City, Mo.
The newspaper said Tipton apparently began appearing as a man to enhance his chances of success as a jazz musician.
“He gave up everything,” Oakes said. “There were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician.”
Tipton, a saxophone and piano player, performed with the Jack Teagarden, Russ Carlyle and Scott Cameron bands, then formed the Billy Tipton Trio in the 1950s and played nightclubs throughout the West.
Dick O’Neil, who played drums with the trio for 10 years, recalled that some listeners made cracks that Tipton, with a baby face and a high singing voice, looked too feminine to be a man.
“But I would almost fight anybody who said that,” O’Neil said. “I never suspected a thing.”
Scott Miller, 27, Tipton’s oldest adopted son, said Tipton died broke and tired.
“Now I know why I couldn’t get him to a doctor,” Miller said. “He had so much to protect and I think he was just tired . . . of keeping the secret.”
“You can imagine the pressure he lived with,” Clark said. “Who knows? Maybe that’s what gave him the ulcer that ended up killing him.”