William Lee Tipton (December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989) was an American jazz musician and bandleader.
Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Tipton grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was raised by an aunt after his mother died. He rarely saw his father, G. W. Tipton, a pilot who sometimes took him for airplane rides.
As a high-school student, Tipton went by the nickname “Tippy” and became interested in music, especially jazz, studying piano and saxophone. He returned to Oklahoma for his final year of high school and joined the school band there.
In 1936, Tipton was the leader of a band playing on KFXR. In 1938, Tipton joined Louvenie’s Western Swingbillies, a band that played on KTOK and at Brown’s Tavern. In 1940 he was touring the Midwest playing at dances with Scott Cameron’s band. In 1941 he began a two and a half-year run performing at Joplin’s Cotton Club with George Meyer’s band, then toured for a time with Ross Carlyle, then played for two years in Texas.
In 1949, Tipton began touring the Pacific Northwest with George Meyer. While this tour was far from glamorous, the band’s appearances at Roseburg, Oregon’s Shalimar Room were recorded by a local radio station, and so recordings exist of Tipton’s work during this time, including “If I Knew Then” and “Sophisticated Swing”. The trio’s signature song was “Flying Home”, performed in a close imitation of Benny Goodman’s band.
As George Meyer’s band became more successful, they began getting more prestigious work, performing with The Ink Spots, the Delta Rhythm Boys, and Billy Eckstine at the Boulevard Club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Tipton began playing piano alone at the Elks club in Longview, Washington. In Longview, he started the Billy Tipton Trio, which consisted of Tipton on piano, Dick O’Neil on drums, and Kenny Richards (and later Ron Kilde) on bass. The trio gained local popularity.
During a performance on tour at King’s Supper Club in Santa Barbara, California, a talent scout from Tops Records heard them play and got them a contract.
The Billy Tipton Trio recorded two albums of jazz standards for Tops: Sweet Georgia Brown and Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano, both released early in 1957.
Among the pieces performed were “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Willow Weep for Me”, “What’ll I Do”, and “Don’t Blame Me”. In 1957, the albums sold 17,678 copies, a “respectable” sum for a small independent record label.
After the albums’ success, the Billy Tipton Trio was offered a position as house band at the Holiday Hotel in Reno, Nevada, and Tops Records invited the trio to record four more albums. Tipton declined both offers, choosing instead to move to Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a talent broker and the trio was the house band at Allen’s Tin Pan Alley, performing weekly.
He played mainly swing standards rather than the jazz he preferred. His performances included skits in the vaudeville tradition, in which he imitated celebrities such as Liberace and Elvis Presley. In some of these sketches, he played a little girl.
He mentored young musicians at the Dave Sobol Theatrical Agency.
In the late 1970s, worsening arthritis forced Tipton to retire from music.