Sonny Barger, who as the charismatic face of the Hells Angels propelled the hard-nosed motorcycle club from its San Francisco-area roots to a global phenomenon while making it a symbol of the West Coast rebellion — and, according to federal authorities, criminal enterprise — died Wednesday in his home outside of Oakland, California. He was 83 years old.
His former attorney and business manager Fritz Clapp said the cause was liver cancer.
The Hells Angels were both a defining part of the post-war counterculture and a sharp departure from it. While the Beats, hippies, yippies, baggers, and other groups leaned far to the left and generally avoided violence, the Angels reveled in attacking anti-war protesters, waging war with rival clubs, and targeting enemies for revenge killings.
By the time Mr. Barger (the name is pronounced with a hard ‘G’) cemented his position as de facto leader of the club’s various chapters in the mid-1960s, these quirks had already made them something of a legend and helped along with them a long list of writers who found her story – and Mr Barger’s fascination – irresistible.
“At every Hell’s Angels gathering,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1967), “there is no mistaking who is running the show: Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, the maximum Leader, a seven-foot-tall, 170-pound warehouse worker from East Oakland, the coolest brain of the bunch, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when the going gets tough. He is by turns a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final judge.”
Always careful to distance himself from many of the club’s more extreme ventures into crime, Mr Barger cultivated an image that was simultaneously hardcore and media savvy.
For example, in 1965 he was not present when a group of Hells Angels in Berkeley, California, attacked demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War, although he verbally attacked the anti-war movement at a press conference soon after — and volunteered to join a squad of bikers behind the North Vietnamese lines.
He was also not involved in the December 6, 1969 violence that broke out between the Hells Angels and spectators at a free concert at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. The headlining Rolling Stones had Mr. Barger and hired the Hells Angels to provide security, but several Angels ended up hitting bystanders with pool cues and stabbing one person, Meredith Hunter, to death.
A few days later, Mr. Barger called a radio station to give his side of the story. He said he sat on the edge of the stage drinking beer and not participating in the fights during the Stones’ set, but he defended his clubmates’ action as self-defense against what he described as a drug-addicted hippie intent on scrapping theirs Cycles. (However, he later admitted to pointing a gun at Keith Richards when the band started late.)
One Hells Angel, Alan Passaro, was charged with murder in Mr. Hunter’s death. He was acquitted in self-defense.
Especially after Altamont, Mr. Barger attempted to polish the Angels’ image by hiring a public relations firm and involving the group in charitable fundraisers. And he insisted that the club — he balked when people called the Hells Angels a gang — didn’t deserve the worst impressions people had, which he felt had been cultivated by law enforcement.
“The Hells Angels never dreamed up a crime,” he told The Phoenix New Times in 1992, shortly after his second sentence ended. “It was dreamed up by the FBI. It was paid for by the FBI and I went to jail for it. That’s how it goes.”
In fact, by the time of Altamont, the organization was already descending deeper into crime, particularly drug dealing. The FBI estimates that biker gangs controlled a quarter of the heroin trade in the United States in the 1980s.
Beginning in 1963, Mr. Barger was arrested almost annually, usually for assault, weapons, or drug offenses. And at least for a while he always got out. In 1972 he was charged with the murder of a drug dealer, Servio Winston Agero, but he was acquitted when a key witness proved unreliable.
Finally, in 1973, he was sentenced to 10 years of life imprisonment for possession of drugs and weapons. He went to Folsom State Prison where he continued to lead the Hells Angels. He was released in 1977.
In 1988 he was jailed again and convicted of conspiring to attack members of a rival motorcycle group, the Outlaws.
When he was released from prison in 1992, he was an elder statesman on the motorcycle scene. A bout of throat cancer in 1982 had forced doctors to remove his vocal cords, leaving him with a hole in his throat that he had to close in order to speak, and then only a hoarse whisper. People had to bend down to hear him, reinforcing his image as a leather-clad godfather.
And though he played less of a role with the Hells Angels, he continued to provide plenty of fodder for magazine profiles, this time as an avuncular, time-hardened sage.
“I think having time is just part of growing up,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “There are only certain things you have to do in your life. You have to go to school, you have to go to the army, you have to go to jail. All this contributes to a well-rounded life.”
Ralph Hubert Barger Jr. was born on October 8, 1938 in Modesto, California. When he was 4 months old, his mother, Kathryn (Ritch) Barger, ran away with a Trailways bus driver and left him in the care of Ralph Hubert Barger Jr, a babysitter. His father moved to Oakland with Sonny and his sister Shirley, where he worked as a stevedore.
At night, Sonny’s father would take him to spend his earnings at the town’s waterfront taverns. Sonny learned to swear from a parrot at a bar, Jungle Jim’s.
Mr. Barger’s first wife, Elsie Mae (George) Barger, died of a self-induced abortion. His marriages to Sharon Gruhlke and Noel Black both ended in divorce. He is survived by his fourth wife Zorana (Katzakian) Barger and his sister Shirley Rogers.
By his own admission, he was a shy student, got into fights every day and dropped out after the 10th grade. He enlisted in the army in 1955, but was honorably discharged 14 months later when his superiors learned he had forged his birth certificate.
Back in Oakland, he drifted from job to job, living with his father for a time and with his sister and her family for another time.
Over time, he fell into a group of hard-partying, troubled Army veterans who shared a passion for motorcycles. They decided to start their own club, and on April 1, 1957, the Hells Angels were born – without the possessive apostrophe because it didn’t fit on a patch.
They soon learned that there were at least two other clubs with the same name. Mr. Barger acted quickly to consolidate the groups and then moved their headquarters to Oakland – effectively making his chapter first among equals, with himself as the de facto leader.
At first he made ends meet as a machine operator. But he soon realized that there was profit to be made from the angels’ notoriety. In the late 1960s, he earned most of his income as a consultant on biker gang films.
He founded the Hells Angels and paid out 500 shares in the company, which was run by a board composed of the heads of the various chapters. He also trademarked the name and then sued anyone who used it without his permission, including Marvel Comics and director Roger Corman.
He also made money from his own name by licensing it for use on T-shirts, wine labels, and beer bottles. He peddled Sonny Barger’s Cajun-style salsa. And he began writing books—six in all, including two novels and an autobiography, Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (2001), a New York Times bestseller.
He retired from his leadership role with the Hells Angels in 1998 and moved to Arizona, where he lived outside of Phoenix and tended a horse stable. (He returned to the Bay Area in 2016.) He took up yoga, quit drug use, and encouraged kids to stay away from cigarettes.
He even toured Hollywood, appearing in several seasons of Sons of Anarchy, a television series about a biker gang.
But he has never regretted his life choices.
“One of the things that’s always amazed me about reporters my whole life,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “99 percent of them will say, ‘Dude, after I’ve talked to you, I think you’re reasonably intelligent are. You could have become anything you wanted!’ They don’t realize that I am what I want to be.”
Daniel Victor contributed to the coverage.