Welcome to Girl Island: The Odyssey of Sandy Stone (Part 1 of 3)

An edited version of this feature was first published in Good Times Santa Cruz.

In March, Dr. Allucquére Rosanne “Sandy” Stone was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. The honor recognizes her lifetime of work that has spanned multiple fields: audio engineering, community radio, performance art, academia and more. Dr. Stone’s induction marks the first time that a trans woman has received the award from the nation’s oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring women. And while Dr. Stone has been a prominent figure in her various fields for more than 50 years, a new documentary, Girl Island (scheduled for release in 2025) will bring her story to an even wider public.

Sound and Vision
Born a Jewish boy, Sandy Stone began her work as a recording engineer in the 1950s, when she was still a high school student in New Jersey. The whole concept of recording fascinated her. “There was something magic about the idea that you could transform one medium into another,” she says. “You could get the sound of someone singing and then make it into a physical object that you could hold in your hand.” She emphasizes that on its own, said handheld object – a vinyl record or a reel of tape – didn’t make any sound. “But you could put it into a machine out of which noise came. I thought, ‘This is amazing,’ and I wanted to do more.”

So she did. But Sandy would have to be self-taught. “There wasn’t anybody else I knew that was doing it,” she says, describing herself as a geek, one who found it challenging to communicate her thoughts and feelings to others. “I was interested in how geeks – who are normally very retiring – communicated with the world.”

Sandy decided that sound and light could be her media, tools with which to communicate those feelings. As far back as the 1950s she put on performances of what are now known as light shows. She also programmed scores to accompany silent films. Her criteria for selecting the music was straightforward enough: “This is moving,” she would think to herself. “Will it move other people?” The term multimedia wasn’t yet in wide use, but Stone was already pioneering in the field.

Her recording endeavors continued apace as well. “My first recording studio was in the basement of my parents’ home,” she recalls. And through a series of connections, she found herself creating audio documents of a legendary musical figure. “A person named Dick Spottswood had just done this somewhat jaw-dropping thing of finding Mississippi John Hurt,” Stone recalls.

Country blues singer and guitarist Hurt had begun his musical career in the late 1920s, but when a series of 78 r.p.m. record releases failed to jump-start his career, he returned to a life of farming. More than three decades later, musicologist Spottswood tracked him down in Avalon, Mississippi. In 1963 Spottswood convinced the musician to come with him to Washington, D.C. and make new recordings.

“But Dick didn’t want to take John to a regular recording studio,” Stone says. “He wanted something that would be a little less intimidating.” As it happened, Stone had built a studio in her log cabin home near Annapolis, Maryland. Through intermediaries, Spottswood reached out to this recording engineer whom he did not know. “Next thing I knew,” Stone recalls, “I was shaking hands with Mississippi John Hurt.”

Hurt and Spottswood moved into Stone’s studio, remaining for a week. “I had the recording equipment set up 24 hours a day,” Stone explains. “When they felt like recording, I would turn it on.” As a result of the informal setting, there’s a spontaneous, audio verité quality to the recordings. The cuckoo clock in Stone’s kitchen even makes itself known. “We just let the tape roll,” Stone says. From those monaural master tapes came 1963’s landmark Folk Songs and Blues, released mere days after Hurt’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival. The album and concert led to a revival of the bluesman’s career.

By the late 1960s, Stone would land a job at a new recording studio, the Record Plant. Launched by Gary Kellgren, the studio was an innovative enterprise, one of the first studios to make use of a 12-track recording console. Stone cold-called on the studio doorstep in hope of getting work. Yet while she was quite experienced as an engineer, none of her experience had been inside a major studio. “Somehow I got them to open the door for me,” she recalls. “I told them, ‘I’m the greatest recording engineer in the world!’” Kellgren was unimpressed, but Stone persisted, claiming that she could fix anything.

As luck would have it, at the moment the studio’s Scully 12-track console was broken. Kellgren asked Stone if she could fix it. “Oh, of course; I fix them all the time,” she lied. “But I don’t have the instruction manual with me today.” She asked to borrow it; Kellgren said yes. “And his fate was sealed,” Stone says with a mischievous chuckle. “I speed-read the manual!” She fixed the machine, and was hired on the spot as an engineer.

In short order, Stone found herself working in the studio with Jimi Hendrix. “He was a sweet, warm guy, and a perfectionist,” she says. Stone helped devise technological methods of realizing some of the bold concepts Hendrix had in his head. “Some of those ideas were kind of obscure and psychological,” she says, “and some of them didn’t exist at all.”

Stone recalls an amusing anecdote about Hendrix. “Jimi had a huge desire to put his hands on the [recording console],” she says, noting that musicians weren’t permitted to touch that equipment. “So Gary made Jimi a little box with knobs all over it, and a thick umbilical that came out and went into the console,” Stone explains. “It did nothing, but Jimi didn’t know that. He had a wonderful time with those knobs.” Even though she enjoys sharing that story, Stone makes it clear that she recognized Hendrix as a musical innovator. “We developed a deep friendship and appreciation of what each [other] was doing,” she says.

Stone was instrumental in outfitting a console for Record Plant’s Studio B. At a gala party to celebrate its opening, she found herself in conversation with many big names. “Drugs flowed with incredible free-ness,” she admits. “At one point, I found myself sitting on the floor with my back to the wall, because I couldn’t stand up.” There she engaged in deep conversation with brothers Edgar and Johnny Winter. “But I can’t possibly remember what we talked about,” she laughs.

As a result of Stone’s critical role in studio setup, Kellgren wanted her to do that full time, traveling around the country opening up new Record Plant branches. But Stone wanted to record. Kellgren issued an ultimatum. “ I used the IBM Selectric typewriter at the front desk, and typed out a note,” Stone recalls. “’Dear Gary, I hereby resign. Signed, Sandy.’” She left her keys on the desk and never returned.

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