The youngest of four children, Spencer was born Elizabeth Dickerson on April 12, 1871; her father died eight months later. In 1874, her mother remarried to Col. William Gilpin, who had served as the first governor of the Territory of Colorado in 1861. The family moved to Denver. Spencer received vocal training and learned to sing, recite stories and poetry and play piano and violin. She graduated from St. Mary’s Academy and, after an extensive European tour, married Otis Spencer, an attorney. A recognized society woman, Spencer sang in churches, concerts, clubs, parties and amateur theatricals.
She got her big break in 1905, performing a successful solo act at the local Orpheum Theatre, her professional debut in a major vaudeville house. Her second engagement, a one-act sketch, displayed her acting abilities, and the experience led to roles in Broadway road companies. By 1910, she was residing in New York City and making her first recordings. Signing an exclusive contract with inventor and businessman Thomas Edison’s company, Spencer’s “dramatic soprano” was heard on numerous studio recordings, participating in solos, duets, trios, quartets and choruses.
Having made only phonograph cylinders, Edison decided to add a disc format to the product line in order to compete with such rivals as the thriving Victor Talking Machine Company. The majority of Spencer’s best work was on the Diamond Disc, which reproduced the quality of her singing with greater accuracy. Edison chose Spencer to give public Tone Test demonstrations, during which she would sing at the same level with the phonograph, the lights would dim, and audience members had to guess when she stopped singing and when the phonograph took over.
The Edison studio cashbooks document Spencer in approximately 661 sessions by the time her commitment expired in 1916, more than any other vocalist. Spencer signed with Victor, but by 1920, she was back at Edison, and her session schedule slowed considerably. Diamond Discs were more expensive than and incompatible with other brands of records, ultimately failing in the marketplace; Edison closed the record division a day before the 1929 stock market crash. Spencer died in Montclair, New Jersey in 1930, ten days after her 59th birthday.