Eleanor Collins: Vancouver’s First Lady of Jazz

Several years ago I worked in the CBC Vancouver Media Archives on a film preservation project. The content introduced me to much of Vancouver’s moving image history as well as the artists and technicians who created that legacy. One of the most fascinating artists to catch my eye and ear was Eleanor Collins.

Publicity portrait of Eleanor Collins. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC Vancouver Photo Collection

Publicity portrait of Eleanor Collins. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC Vancouver Photo Collection

My fascination with this amazing woman all started with a single photograph (see above) from the CBC Vancouver Still Photograph Collection. I was mesmerized by her radiance. As a jazz fan, I had to find out more about this performer. Viewing some of her television work from the 50’s & 60’s, I was enthralled by her luminous appearance, her sultry sound, and her magnetic screen presence. But, there is so much more to this fascinating woman…

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. Throughout her career, Eleanor was known as the consummate professional, able to take any song and give it meaning.  ‘Vancouver Sun’ nightlife and celebrity columnist Jack Wasserman once wrote about Eleanor- “She could start fires by rubbing two notes together!”

August 14, 1963 CBUT program,

August 14, 1963 CBUT program, “Showcase” production still – Eleanor Collins. Photo: Franz Lindner, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection

Elnora (Eleanor) Collins was born on November 21, 1919, in Edmonton, the middle child of three sisters born to pioneering parents who came to Alberta in 1910 via the United States. They were part of a group of Black homesteaders drawn to Canada by advertising offering affordable homesteading opportunities in Canada’s west.

In the 1930s, when Eleanor’s father was incapacitated and unable to work, her mother was left to raise their three daughters on her own. To support the family, Eleanor’s mother Estelle boldly approached city officials to allow her to set up a home laundry business so that she would not have to rely on Relief,  but could earn her own money to support her family. It was a fearless move, which resulted in success.  Eleanor credits her mother for her own spiritual grounding and her ‘can-do’ attitude towards life.

A natural talent with a good ear for music, Eleanor was brought up with a tradition of family musical evenings. Each member of the extended family was expected to participate by either singing, playing an instrument, or reciting verse. Eleanor’s family was often asked to perform for their community and church. In 1934, at the age of 15, Eleanor won an amateur talent contest in Edmonton. These early experiences were her “music school” and laid the foundation for her future career as a performer.

In 1939, following in her sister Ruby’s footsteps, Eleanor moved to Vancouver. She was immediately smitten by Vancouver’s mild winters and almost year-round access to outdoor activities like tennis, cycling around Stanley Park, and Pro-Rec . It was on the tennis courts in Stanley Park where she met the man who would become her life partner of 70 years, Richard (Dick) Collins. They married in 1942 and settled into homemaking and rearing a family of four children in Burnaby.

The Collins family at home in the 1960s.

The Collins family at home in the 1960s. Photo: Franz Lindner

Moving into an all-white neighborhood in the late 1940s proved to be a problem for the Collins’ when neighbours started a petition against the family in an attempt to intimidate them from settling into their new home. Instead of getting angry, Eleanor and her family got busy. In order to combat the ignorance and misguided attitudes of her new neighbours, Eleanor and her family 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 a person’s skin colour.

“Be at the right place at the right time. And wherever it is, blossom.”-Eleanor Collins

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. During her radio career in the 1940s, Eleanor first sang with a group called The Three E’s and later with a quartet (that included her sister Ruby) called the Swing Low Quartet. She was also invited to join the Ray Norris led, CBC Radio Jazz series called Serenade in Rhythm.

Eleanor singing in the 1940s. Photo: Jack Lindsay, COV Archives, CVA-1184-1220

Eleanor singing in the 1940s. Photo: Jack Lindsay, COV Archives, CVA-1184-1220

Her work with CBC radio (CBU Vancouver) naturally evolved into working for Vancouver’s first television station CBUT (CBC Vancouver).  CBUT went on the air in December of 1953. In the beginning, CBUT broadcast very little local programming. Its programming scope increased considerably in 1954 with the arrival of the mobile television unit, and when the completion of the CBUT television studios permitted the first live broadcasts. The first live musical/dance broadcast out of Vancouver was a programme called Bamboula: a day in the West Indies featuring Eleanor Collins and the Leonard Gibson Dancers. Lasting only 3 episodes (August 25, September 1 & 8 1954) 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 also was the first (of many) musical/dance programmes produced out of Vancouver. Being involved in such an open and creative community, that were those early days of CBC TV would have been very exciting to an artist like Eleanor.

In this excerpt from the program she sings the jazz standard “Ill Wind (You’re Blowin’ Me No Good)“.

After Bamboula, Eleanor made guest appearances in other musical variety programs alongside musicians and singers from the local music scene such as Parade (1954), Riding High, and Back-o-Town Blues (1955). Her talent, professionalism, and charm were undeniable and soon Collins had her own national television series, The Eleanor Show. Alan Millar was the host for this summer of 1955 weekly music series starring Collins and pianist Chris Gage and accompanied by the Ray Norris Quintet. Regular performers on the show include dancers Leonard Gibson and Denise Quan. The show first aired on CBUT Channel 2, Sunday, June 12, 1955, at 10 pm. 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 national television series was a significant milestone. Eleanor beat Nat King Cole’s achievement of being the first black performer to star in their own show on American television by over a year – The Nat King Cole Show debuted November 1956 on NBC. It’s also to her credit that she became the first Canadian female artist to have her own TV series. She is truly a television pioneer.

August 7 1955.

August 7 1955. “Eleanor” (l-r) Juliette Cavazzi, Alan Millar, Eleanor Collins. Photo: Alvin Armstrong, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection.

In 1961, Eleanor was joined by the Chris Gage Trio appearing in a program called Blues and the Ballad. Three years later in 1964, she was again starring in her own music TV series simply titled Eleanor. In this l964 Eleanor series, Collins was backed once more by the Chris Gage Trio. They performed their renditions of show tunes and popular music from the United States. Guests included local jazz musicians such as Carse Sneddon, Fraser MacPherson, and Don Thompson.

Eleanor Collins with the Chris Gage (Piano) Trio - Stan

Eleanor Collins with the Chris Gage (Piano) Trio – Stan “Cuddles” Johnson on bass, and Jimmy Wightman on drums, CBUT-TV studios. Photo: Alvin Armstrong, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection

In addition to her extensive work on local CBC radio & television, Eleanor was also involved in local theatre appearing in several TUTS (Theatre Under The Stars) and Avon Theatre productions such as You Can’t Take it With You (1953), Kiss Me Kate (1953) and Finian’s Rainbow (1952 & 1954). Eleanor was able to introduce her children to the performing arts when they appeared with her in various productions for TUTS and on CBC Radio and Television. In 1952 Eleanor 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,” 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. Once again her personal strength and her belief in doing, what was right, saw her through.

Here is a clip of Eleanor singing “Look to the Rainbow” from Finian’s Rainbow on CBC TV in 1980.

Eleanor was committed to her family and community. As a result, she felt she “would have to limit my singing career to work in Vancouver”. There’s no doubt that Eleanor had the talent to go much further in her career, but fleeting fame wasn’t what she wanted out of life. So she turned down opportunities with American recording companies and glamorous nightclub engagements in the States. She did so without regret. Her work at CBC and her singing engagements around town in Vancouver’s vibrant jazz community kept her plenty busy. Vancouverites should consider themselves fortunate to have had such an amazing local talent like Ms. Collins in their midst.

Eleanor Collins publicity still

Eleanor Collins CBC publicity still, 1960s. Photo: Alvin Armstrong, CBC Vancouver Still Photo Collection

The popularity of musical variety shows ebbed and musical tastes changed by the late 1960s and Eleanor’s performing career subsided. She kept very engaged by focusing her attention on her own personal and spiritual growth. Eleanor served as musical director at Unity Church.

She also managed to keep her hand in public performance during the 1970s. One of the most memorable was her performance in front of an audience of 80,000 for the Canada Day Ceremonies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 1975. Performing for the largest live audience of her career, she recalls looking out from the stage at a mass of people holding candles. “Suddenly it came very clearly that I was Canadian,” Eleanor recalls fondly, “and to be proud of it.

In the 1980s her family was featured in a segment of a documentary called “Hymn to Freedom: The History of Blacks in Canada Series”. She was also profiled on the CBC television newsmagazine style programs Take 30 (1976) and Here & Now (1988).

In 2009, Eleanor turned 90. This event was celebrated on the long-running CBC Radio jazz show, Hot Air, with a feature on the fabulous Ms. Collins 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 held January 10, 2016.

Video Feature on Eleanor at the age of 95,  with her singing at the Stayed on Freedom Concert.

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 in 2014 for her pioneering achievements as a jazz vocalist, and for breaking down barriers and fostering race relations in the mid-20th Century.  I asked her what it felt like for her to receive the Order of Canada award. She replied-

“You know, Christine, I am often asked how it feels to be given the Order of Canada and, of course, the bottom line is that I feel very blessed to have my life and work acknowledged by my Country. But the reality of the actual experience of traveling to Ottawa on my 95th Birthday, finding myself in the midst of a very grand event at Rideau Hall and standing before the Governor General and a room full of so many other outstanding Canadians being honoured for their excellence … well, it feels nothing short of surreal! Truly, I am still trying to process that whirlwind weekend of events.”

As an Order of Canada recipient, she is being further honoured with her inclusion 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”.  Out of the 7000 recipients of the Order, Eleanor was one of only 50 individuals to be featured in this book, a collection of inspiring stories showcasing remarkable individuals who reflect who we are and what the Order means to the nation.

Eleanor Collins in 2014. Photo: Ghassan Shanti , courtesy of Eleanor Collins

Eleanor Collins in 2014 looking fabulous. Photo: Ghassan Shanti, courtesy of Eleanor Collins

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”. Ms. Collins explains, “typically you’ll find me preparing to tuck into a very nutritious meal while enjoying a favourite watch like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ or one of the other showcases for today’s young talent. That’s where it is at…ushering in the best of the new generations!”

“It’s all music, really. Life is.”-Eleanor Collins

Many thanks to Eleanor Collins and her daughter Judith Maxie for all their help with this post.

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