In January 1989 in Spokane, Washington, a jazz pianist and bandleader called Billy Tipton died of an untreated hemorrhaging peptic ulcer. His was never a household name, but Tipton had made a consistent modest living off his music – mostly swing standards in the Benny Goodman mode – touring clubs and radio stations in the West for many decades. He recorded several albums for a small independent record label called Tops, from which a few tracks still survive.
But he turned down several offers to work in more prestigious and visible venues, and it wasn’t until his death that his three adopted children found out why this talented musician had shunned the spotlight (and doctors): Billy had been born, in 1914 in Oklahoma City, as Dorothy Lucille Tipton. She adopted a male persona in order to break into a music business that was still not very friendly to women performers, and went on to live as a man so persuasively that the two women with whom he had multi-year common-law marriages claimed never to have known that “Billy” was biologically female.
In these days when “gender fluidity” is all the rage, a Dorothy/Billy Tipton would doubtless find a comfortable place in the world with greater ease and less need for secrecy. But successfully carrying off some 50 years of public deception in the mid-20th century must have been challenging indeed. Songs, short stories, films, plays, an opera, a novel and at least one doctoral dissertation have been inspired by Tipton’s remarkable life; and now there’s a much-praised “musical biography” out, by British/American singer Nellie McKay. She’ll be performing the one-woman revue, titled A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, at 8 p.m. on Sunday, January 22 at Helsinki Hudson.
Known for her eccentric stylistic blend of cabaret, pop, rock, jazz and hip-hop, her lyrical wit and off-kilter humor, McKay has composed two previous musical bios: I Want to Live! the story of Barbara Graham, the third woman executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin; and Silent Spring: It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature, an exploration in song of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson. She co-created and starred in the Off-Broadway hit Old Hats in 2013, and won Theatre World’s Janus Award in the Outstanding Debut Performance category in 2006 for her performance as Polly Peachum in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera.
McKay kicked off her recording career with a double album titled Get Away from Me (a play on Norah Jones’ then-popular Come Away with Me) in 2003. Her five subsequent LPs include Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day and My Weekly Reader, featuring music of the 1960s, produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. Under her apparently wholesome, girlish exterior lurks an original, genre-bending artist, a political activist and a sly social commentator. Billy Tipton’s poignant saga seems right up McKay’s alley.
General admission tickets to A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton with Nellie McKay cost $25 and can be ordered at https://helsinkihudson.com. Club Helsinki is located at 405 Columbia Street in Hudson.