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Sonny Barger, face of the Hells Angels, dies at 83

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS / 1980
                                Hells Angels founder Ralph “Sonny” Barger and his wife Sharon are shown after his release on $100,000 bond in San Francisco on Aug. 1, 1980. Barger, the leather-clad figurehead of the notorious Hells Angels motorcycle club, has died at age 83.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS / 1980

    Hells Angels founder Ralph “Sonny” Barger and his wife Sharon are shown after his release on $100,000 bond in San Francisco on Aug. 1, 1980. Barger, the leather-clad figurehead of the notorious Hells Angels motorcycle club, has died at age 83.

Sonny Barger, who as the charismatic face of the Hells Angels grew the hard-charging motorcycle club from its roots in the San Francisco area to a global phenomenon, in the process making it an emblem of West Coast rebellion — and, federal authorities said, criminal enterprise — died on Wednesday at his home outside Oakland, California. He was 83.

His former lawyer and business manager, Fritz Clapp, said the cause was liver cancer.

The Hells Angels were both a defining part of the postwar counterculture and a sharp deviation from it. While the beats, hippies, yippies, diggers and other groups skewed far to the left and generally eschewed violence, the Angels reveled in attacking anti-war protesters, warring with rival clubs and targeting enemies for revenge killings.

By the time Barger (the name is pronounced with a hard “G”) solidified his position as the de facto leader of the club’s various chapters, in the mid-1960s, those idiosyncrasies had already made them something of a legend, helped along by a long list of writers who found their story — and Barger’s allure — irresistible.

“In any gathering of Hell’s Angels,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his book “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga” (1967), “there is no doubt who is running the show: Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, the Maximum leader, a six-foot, 170-pound warehouseman from East Oakland, the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when any action starts. By turns he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final arbitrator.”

Barger was always careful to distance himself from much of the club’s more extreme ventures into criminality, cultivating an image that was at once hard-core and media-savvy.

He wasn’t there, for example, in 1965 when a group of Hells Angels in Berkeley, California, assaulted marchers who were protesting the Vietnam War, though he verbally attacked the anti-war movement at a news conference soon after — and volunteered to take a squad of bikers behind North Vietnamese lines.

He was likewise uninvolved in the violence that broke out between Hells Angels and audience members at a free concert at the Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco, on Dec. 6, 1969. The Rolling Stones, who were headlining, had hired Barger and the Hells Angels to provide security, but several Angels ended up beating audience members with pool cues and stabbing one person, Meredith Hunter, to death.

A few days later, Barger called into a radio station to provide his side of the story. He said he had been sitting on the edge of the stage drinking beer during the Stones’ set and had not participated in the fighting, but he defended his fellow club members’ action as self-defense against what he characterized as drug-addled hippies intent on wrecking their bikes. (He did, however, later admit to pulling a gun on Keith Richards when the band was late getting started.)

One Hells Angel, Alan Passaro, was charged with murder in Hunter’s death. He was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

Especially after Altamont, Barger tried to clean up the Angels’ image, hiring a public relations firm and getting the group involved in charity fundraisers. And he insisted that the club — he bristled when people called the Hells Angels a gang — was undeserving of people’s worst impressions, which he said had been cultivated by law enforcement.

“There never was a crime thought up by the Hells Angels,” he told The Phoenix New Times in 1992, soon after his second prison sentence ended. “It was thought up by the FBI. It was paid for by the FBI. And I went to jail for it. That’s the way it goes.”

In fact, by the time of Altamont, the organization was already descending deeper into criminality, especially drug dealing. The FBI estimates that by the 1980s, biker gangs controlled a quarter of the heroin business in the United States.

Starting in 1963, Barger was arrested almost annually, usually on assault, weapons or drug charges. And, for a while at least, he always got off. In 1972 he was charged with murdering 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 to life for possession of narcotics and weapons. He went to Folsom State Prison, where he continued to run the Hells Angels. He was released in 1977.

He went to prison again in 1988, convicted of conspiring to attack members of a rival motorcycle group, the Outlaws.

By the time he left prison, in 1992, he was an elder statesman on the biker scene. A bout with 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 to speak, and then only in 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 in the Hells Angels, he continued to offer ample fodder for magazine profiles, this time as an avuncular, time-hardened sage.

“I think doing time is just part of growing up,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “There’s just certain things you’ve got to do in your life. You’ve got to go to school, you’ve got to go in the Army, you’ve got to go to jail. It all helps you to have a well-rounded life.”

Ralph Hubert Barger Jr. was born in Modesto, California, on Oct. 8, 1938. When he was 4 months old, his mother, Kathryn (Ritch) Barger, ran away with a Trailways bus driver, leaving Sonny, as he came to be called, in the care of a babysitter. His father moved with Sonny and his sister, Shirley, to Oakland, where he worked as a stevedore.

At night, Sonny’s father would take him along as he spent his earnings in the city’s waterfront taverns. Sonny learned to swear from a parrot at one bar, Jungle Jim’s.

Barger’s first wife, Elsie Mae (George) Barger, died from 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.

He was by his own admission a diffident student, getting into fights daily and dropping out after 10th grade. He enlisted in the Army in 1955, but 14 months later he received an honorable discharge when his superiors learned he had faked his birth certificate.

Back in Oakland, he drifted from job to job, living for a time with his father and for another stretch with his sister and her family.

Over time he fell in with a group of hard-partying, troublemaking Army veterans who shared a passion for motorcycles. They decided to form 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. Barger moved quickly to consolidate the groups, then shifted 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 there was profit to be made in the Angels’ notoriety. By the late 1960s he was making most of his income as a consultant on biker-gang films.

He incorporated the Hells Angels, disbursing 500 shares in the company, which was run by a board of directors stocked with the leaders of the various chapters. He also trademarked the name, then sued anyone who used it without his permission, including Marvel Comics and director Roger Corman.

He made money off his own name, too, licensing it for use on T-shirts, wine labels and beer bottles. He hawked Sonny Barger’s Cajun-Style Salsa. And he started 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 stepped back from his leadership role in the Hells Angels in 1998 and moved to Arizona, where he lived outside Phoenix and tended a stable of horses. (He returned to the Bay Area in 2016.) He took up yoga, stopped using drugs and encouraged children to stay away from cigarettes.

He even took a turn through Hollywood, appearing on several seasons of “Sons of Anarchy,” a television series about a biker gang.

But he never regretted his life choices.

“One of the things that has always amazed me about reporters during my whole life,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “99% of them will say, ‘Gee, after talking to you I find that you’re halfway intelligent. You could have been anything you wanted to be!’ They don’t realize, I am what I want to be.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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