Ahead of Black History Month, Canada’s “first lady of jazz” Eleanor Collins has been honored on a postage stamp. The commemorative stamp of the 102-year-old singer was unveiled virtually on Friday morning by Canada Post.
“I feel wonderful and honored,” said Collins. “You know at 102 years old, one doesn’t expect to even be remembered. But I am grateful — now that’s something that you can’t take away. The honor is there, the excitement even is there, but to really have someone affirm your work and life on a postage stamp. … There is only one word for that, and that is surreal.”
Collins, known “for her mesmerizing vocals and sophisticated style”, was also a television pioneer. Canada Post said: “Collins was a trailblazer — becoming the first female Canadian jazz artist (and one of the first Black performers in North America) to host a national television series, The Eleanor Show, in 1955. She hosted a second namesake TV series — Eleanor — in 1964.”
Born Elnora Ruth Proctor on November 21, 1919, in Edmonton, Alberta, Collins’ parents were immigrants from Oklahoma who settled on the Canadian prairies. She first started singing at home and in church before being discovered after winning a local talent contest at age 15. She then moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in the late 1930s.
In the 1940s, she was featured on CBC Radio with the gospel group Swing Low Quartet and, later, with Ray Norris in the jazz series Serenade in Rhythm, according to Canada Post. In the early 1950s, she appeared with other top musicians, such as Chris Gage, Phil Nimmons, Lance Harrison, Doug Parker, Fraser MacPherson, Don Thompson and Dave Robbins.
“Collins’ moving performances earned her the informal title of Canada’s first lady of jazz,” Canada Post said.
The singer made her television debut in 1954 on the CBC variety series Bamboula: A Day in the West Indies, which aired in 1954. Collins appeared on several other television and radio shows through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and made her last concert appearance in Vancouver when she was in her mid-90s, according to Canada Post.
The jazz icon has received several lifetime achievement awards including becoming a Member of 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.”
Despite her fame and success, Collins faced discrimination. When she got married in the 1940s, she decided to move to an all-white neighborhood in Burnaby, B.C. with her husband and children. However, her neighbors started a petition to prevent her from moving in with her family. The petition was unsuccessful but it shows how racism was as present in Canada as it was in the U.S.
Collins recently told CBC News that music helped bring the Black community together and provide comfort. “I see for my people, it was a … safe place to live, a safe place to be together because the harsh world outside there do not approve of us,” she said.
Jazz musician Alan Matheson, who performed with Collins at a concert in the 1980s, told CTV News that he admires “her remarkable versatility and her sparkle as a performer.”
“Didn’t matter if she was singing Broadway show tunes or folk music or jazz standards. She always sounded 100 percent like herself.”