I think everyone in Vancouver should know about Eleanor Collins. Some of you may already know and admire the glorious singer, but I suspect it’s likely that many of you have never even heard of her. I hope to change that. You see, there’s just something about Eleanor…
Known as “Vancouver’s first lady of jazz”, Eleanor Collins was a groundbreaking figure in Canadian entertainment history. She had a longtime association working with Vancouver’s leading musicians on CBC radio and television. In 2014, at the age of 94, she was invested with the Order of Canada for her “pioneering achievements as a jazz vocalist, and for breaking down barriers and fostering race relations in the mid-20th Century”.
Born in Edmonton in 1919, Eleanor moved to the Lower Mainland in 1939 where she would meet the man who would become her life partner of 70 years, Richard (Dick) Collins. In 1942, they married and started a family. In the late 1940s the young Collins family moved to their new home in the then all-white neighbourhood of Burnaby, where they were greeted with a petition against them, an attempt to intimidate them from settling into their new home. In order to combat the ignorance and misguided attitudes of her new neighbours, the Collins’ immersed themselves in their new community by participating in local activities, events and organizations. By showing their new neighbours that they were “ordinary people with the same values and concerns as they had”, Eleanor and her family broke down barriers by inviting others to see beyond skin colour.
Eleanor was also involved in local theatre, appearing in several TUTS (Theatre Under The Stars) and Avon Theatre productions in the 1950s. In 1952, she and her four children appeared in the TUTS musical production of Finian’s Rainbow at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. For this production “they put dark make-up on one of the ladies who could sing and used her as the Sharecropper — a bigger role,” Ms. Collins explains. When the show remounted in 1954, Eleanor accepted the offer to perform in it again, but on one condition: “I need to be doing the Sharecropper,” she told them. And so she did, with Eleanor once again breaking down racial barriers.
Eleanor’s career in radio began in 1945 when she accompanied a friend to the CBC radio studios in the Hotel Vancouver. There she met Vancouver musician Ray Norris, who quickly put her to work as a singer on a radio show. She was also invited to join the Ray Norris-led CBC Radio Jazz series called Serenade in Rhythm.
Her career on CBC radio led naturally to her career on CBC television. Local TV first came to Vancouver on December 16, 1953 when CBUT (CBC Vancouver) first started broadcasting. On August 25th, 1954, CBC aired the first episode (of three) of a programme called Bamboula: a day in the West Indies featuring singer Eleanor Collins and the Leonard Gibson Dancers. Bamboula featured the “music, folklore, voodoo ritual and popular music of the Caribbean countries”. Produced by Mario Prizek and choreographed by Len Gibson – Bamboula was groundbreaking. Not only was it the first television show in Canada to feature a mixed-race cast, but it was also the first musical/dance programme produced out of Vancouver.
Her talent, professionalism and charm were undeniable. Soon Eleanor Collins had her own television series, The Eleanor Show. Alan Millar was the host for this summer of 1955 weekly music series starring Eleanor and pianist Chris Gage, accompanied by the Ray Norris Quintet. At a time when she “didn’t see a lot of my people on TV”, being the first black artist in North America to star in her own television series was a significant milestone. It’s also to her credit that she became the first Canadian female artist to have her own TV series. In 1964, she was again starring in her own music TV series on CBC, simply titled Eleanor, in which she was backed by the Chris Gage Trio performing their renditions of show tunes and popular music. She is truly a television pioneer and a Vancouver icon.
In 2009, Eleanor turned 90. This event was celebrated on the long-running CBC Radio jazz show, Hot Air, with a two-part feature on the fabulous singer produced by Paolo Pietropaolo. In her 90s Eleanor Collins is still very active and engaged in the community. In the last couple of years, she sang at her friend Marcus Mosely’s “Stayed on Freedom Concerts” as well as performing at the memorial for legendary singer and performer Leon Bibb on January 10, 2016.
Eleanor has received many honours over her lifetime. In 1986 she was recognized as a Distinguished Pioneer by the City of Vancouver. More recently, she was invested with the Order of Canada (as noted above) for her pioneering achievements as a jazz vocalist, and for breaking down barriers and fostering race relations in the mid-20th Century. She was recently honoured as one of fifty Order of Canada recipients (out of a total of 7,000) to be featured in a new book celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Order of Canada along with Canada’s 150th Anniversary titled: They Desire a Better Country: The Order of Canada in 50 Stories.
Now in her 98th year, Eleanor feels fortunate to have enough good health and vitality to live independently in her own home. She practices healthy living and carries a positive spirit as part of her daily routine, filling her days with “lots of good music, good television, good food, and good family and friends”.
Eleanor remains committed to her family and community. As a result, she felt she “would have to limit my singing career to work in Vancouver”. With her luminous appearance, sultry sound and magnetic screen presence there’s no doubt that Eleanor had what it would take to go much further in her career, but fleeting fame wasn’t what she wanted out of life. She repeatedly turned down opportunities with American recording companies and glamorous nightclub engagements in the States to stay here. And she did so without regret.
We are all fortunate to have such an amazing person like Eleanor in our midst.Throughout her career, she was the consummate professional, able to take any song and give it grace and meaning. ‘Vancouver Sun’ nightlife and celebrity columnist Jack Wasserman once wrote about Eleanor: “She could start fires by rubbing two notes together!” For evidence of this, watch this CBC-produced clip on her life, music and impact.