A Girl Named Nellie

The point isn’t accuracy. It’s the primal pleasure of shedding one’s skin.


Nellie McKay plays at the Freight on July 9.

Photo by Bridget Laudien (CC)

Long before Caitlin Jenner parlayed the trans moment into another extended turn in the spotlight, the gender-bending tale of Billy Tipton served as a creative catalyst for many artists, most recently the irrepressible singer/songwriter Nellie McKay.

Born Dorothy Tipton in Oklahoma, the aspiring musician only found regular work as a jazz pianist in the 1930s after embracing a male persona. Several common-law wives had no idea about Tipton’s previous identity, and the story emerged only after the musician’s death in 1989 (particularly via Diane Wood Middlebrook’s biography A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton). Wikipedia lists more than a dozen creative projects inspired by Tipton, including an opera, several plays, a novel, a short story by Ry Cooder, a short film, and the critically hailed all-women Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet (now known as the Tiptons).

McKay, the gamine performer with a gift for zany irony, turned Tipton’s story into an arch and playful cabaret show with a title cribbed from Middlebrook’s bio. She brings the production, a series of almost stream-of-consciousness vignettes covering Tipton’s career over four decades, to Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse on July 9.

Part of the show’s delirious fun is the Victor/Victoria spectacle of McKay as Tipton impersonating performers such as Liberace, Jimmy Durante, and Elvis Presley. The point isn’t accuracy. It’s the primal pleasure of shedding one’s skin. The excellent band often gets into the act, providing vocals and taking bit roles. The repertoire ranges from deadpan jazz standards (My Fair Lady’s “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”) and blues novelties to well-crafted McKay originals. It’s impossible to know what Tipton would make of the posthumous fame, but as a showbiz lifer some part of the pianist would have surely been pleased.

Nellie McKay, 7 p.m. July 9, $20-$24, Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 644-2020, TheFreight.org.


This report appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.


Published online July 6, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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