Eleanor Collins was born Elnora Ruth Proctor on November 21, 1919, in Edmonton, Alberta. Her parents were part of the migration of Black settlers from Oklahoma who responded to the Canadian government’s promotion to settle the prairies in 1910.
As a young child Eleanor took an active role in the Proctor family tradition of singing and playing music of old time religious songs, anthems and hymns common to their new surroundings. Led by an Uncle, each family member was assigned a key and harmonic part and this was the genesis of Eleanor’s musical training. If you muddled your part a real chastising followed. Fortunate for Eleanor, she was born with a keen musical ear that always allowed her to hear the right notes. This gift held her in good stead to win a talent contest at the age of 15 and through the rest of her career.
In 1939 Eleanor moved to Vancouver where she met her husband, Richard (Dick) Collins and settled into homemaking and rearing a family of four children (Rick, Judith, Barry and Tom). In 1945, wishing to help supplement the family income, Eleanor found work in music at CBC Radio. At first she sang with a group called The Three E’s, followed by the formation of a Quartet comprised of Eleanor, her sister, Ruby Sneed, and two friends, Edna Panky and Zandy Price. Calling themselves the Swing Low Quartet, they sang many African American Spirituals.
Later in 1945, 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. This jazz series was called Serenade in Rhythm, a long running program that was short waved to the Canadian Troops in Europe on CBC Radio International Service. Radio was truly the medium of the day and from this beginning Eleanor enjoyed a long and vibrant career. She was an actress in the Vancouver Production of You Can’t Take it With You and in Theatre Under the Stars Productions of Kiss Me Kate and Finian’s Rainbow. In the latter production, Eleanor’s children performed with her.
However it was her work on television that Eleanor is best remembered. Commencing in 1954 with the inauguration of CBUT she was featured in the Caribbean flavoured production of Bamboula. It was the first live musical variety series created in Vancouver and certainly one of the first in Canada to feature an interracial cast.
After the cancellation of Bamboula, CBC decided to showcase Collins’ style, elegance and sophistication in her own musical variety series The Eleanor Show. The show ran as a summer series in 1954 (and was later reprised as just “Eleanor” in 1964.), Eleanor became the first Canadian music performer to have a show named for her and the first music artist of colour in North America to host her own national television series -- groundbreaking features in Canadian history. Her Show pre-dated the 1956 Nat King Cole Show in the United States.
Often referred to by media as “Vancouver’s First Lady of Jazz”, Collins made countless CBC Radio and Television appearances as lead artist well into the 1960’s and 70’s. Productions documented at CBC Archives include, among others: Parade, Riding High, Hatful of Music, Quintet, Back O’Town Blues, Strange House, Jazz at the PNE, Open House, Showcase 30, 40, and 41, Happy Holiday, and The 7 O’Clock Show. Along with her work on television she performed as jazz vocalist on numerous concert stages and Clubs including the Seattle World’s Fair, opener for Dominion Day Ceremonies on Parliament Hill, Ottawa and the Jazz Canada series.
Collins’ outstanding musical and dramatic talent served as a well-spring for many productions that helped foster the creative development of some of the finest producers, directors, writers, technicians and musical talents in the country. And her high visibility on pre-cable television and media had a positive impact on the wider community, helping to break down barriers and open doors for future artists of colour and others of diverse backgrounds.
Despite many international offers by leading musicians of the day, Collins chose to remain in Canada to give stability to her family. She says that Canada was the country her Mother had chosen all those many years ago and she wanted to honour her vision. Eventually the music industry and especially variety shows gave way to genre of the New Age and Collins was happy to find a place as Unity Church Music Director and guest soloist at various inspirational music events before conceding retirement.
By the late1980’s Collins was considered a living legend and many individuals producing heritage projects began to again search her out. She and the Collins Family were featured in a documentary entitled Hymn to Freedom: On This Rock and Telefilm Canada. As well, she performed in concerts and recorded on the album entitled She-Bop celebrating Canadian women in music history. By 2009 and at the age of 90 she was again being celebrated by the CBC with a special birthday tribute on the Hot Air Jazz Show hosted by Paolo Pietropaolo. Later she was featured as an important BC jazz pioneer on the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society website with videos and biographical material. Other celebrations of this nonagenarian found her a short listed finalist for the prestigious Toronto Glenn Gould Foundation Award prize; featured artist on CBC’s 60th Television Anniversary Show in 2014; a celebrant of a Women of Our Times acknowledgement from the National Congress of Black Women; as well as many books, magazines, newspaper articles and media interviews and features. Still vibrant at the age of 94, Eleanor surprised and delighted a packed house concert audience by singing live at Marcus Mosely’s 3rd and 4th Black History Month Annual Stayed On Freedom Concerts, at St. Andrews Wesley United Church, Vancouver.
Collins has been the recipient of numerous awards for her contribution to arts and entertainment, including the 1986 Centennial Distinguished Pioneer Award and induction into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame, Lifetime Achievement Awards from ACTRA’s Sam Payne Award, The Toronto Black Diversity Network Black Canadian Awards, and the Black Women in Jazz Awards in Atlanta, Georgia.
In Ottawa November 21, 2014, and on the occasion of Collins’ 95th Birthday, she was invested into The Order of Canada. Her official citation reads as follows: “Eleanor Collins, C.M. is a supremely talented vocalist who changed the face of race relations in mid-20th Century Vancouver. In 1948 she was ostracized upon moving into one of the city’s predominantly white neighbourhoods. She responded by fostering the values of equality and acceptance within her community —and consequently became a civic leader and pioneer in the development of British Columbia’s music industry. Celebrated for her extensive career as a jazz singer with CBC Radio and Television, she became the first Black artist in North America to host a nationally broadcast television series.”