Eleanor Collins, Vancouver’s “First Lady of Jazz,” was the first Canadian woman to have her own national television show: CBC TV’s The Eleanor Show (1955) and Eleanor (1964). She championed the values of equality and acceptance and is considered a civic leader and pioneer in the development of British Columbia’s music industry.
Eleanor Collins was born Elnora Ruth Proctor in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1919 to Black and Creole Indian parents who had settled on the Canadian prairies with more than 1,000 Black pioneers from Oklahoma. At the age of 15, she was able to win a talent contest because of her keen ear for music. This talent served her well throughout her career. Eleanor moved to Vancouver in 1939 where she met her husband Richard (Dick) Collins and settled down to raise their four children (Rick, Judith, Barry and Tom).
In 1945, Eleanor became a studio musician for CBC Radio to supplement her family’s income. Later that year, Eleanor accepted an invitation to join leading CBC Radio studio musician, Ray Norris, in the formation of a Quintet where she was the featured vocalist. Serenade in Rhythm was a long running jazz series short waved to the Canadian troops in Europe on CBC Radio International Service.
“The Eleanor Show” CBC’s musical variety series that aired as a summer series in 1954 and later as “Eleanor” in 1964, featured Collins’ style, elegance, and sophistication. Eleanor was the first Canadian music artist to have a show named after her, and the first music artist of color to host a national television series in North America – both groundbreaking achievements in Canadian history.
By the late 1980s, Collins was considered a living legend, and many heritage projects began seeking her out once again. She and the Collins family appeared in a documentary titled Hymn to Freedom: On This Rock.
Among other accomplishments, Eleanor performed live in concerts and recorded on the album She-Bop, which celebrated female musicians in Canadian culture history. Still vibrant at the age of 94, Eleanor surprised and delighted a packed house concert audience by performing live at Marcus Mosely’s 3rd and 4th Black History Month.
Collins has received numerous awards for her contributions to the arts and entertainment, including the Centennial Distinguished Pioneer Award in 1986 and induction into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame, ACTRA’s Sam Payne Award, the Toronto Black Diversity Network Black Canadian Awards and the Black Women in Jazz Awards in Atlanta.