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 into a global phenomenon, in the process turning it into an emblem of West Coast insurgency — and, according to the federal authorities, criminal enterprise — died Wednesday at his home outside Oakland, California. He was 83.
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, diggers and other groups moved far to the left and eschewed violence, the Angels enjoyed attacking anti-war protesters, battling rival clubs and targeting enemies for revenge killings.
By the time Mr. Barger (the name is pronounced with a hard “G”) had solidified his position as de facto leader of the various divisions of the club in the mid-1960s, those idiosyncrasies had already made them a legend, helped together with a long list of writers who found their story – and Mr. Barger’s appeal – irresistible.
“At every gathering of Hell’s Angels,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson in his book “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga” (1967), “there is no question who runs the show: Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, the Maximum leader , a two-foot-tall 170-pound warehouse worker from East Oakland, the coolest head of the bunch, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when things go wrong, alternating between being a fanatic, a philosopher, a fighter, a cunning compromise maker, and a final arbitrator. .”
Mr. Barger was always careful to distance himself from many of the club’s more extreme ventures into crime, cultivating an image that was both hard-core and media savvy.
For example, he wasn’t there in 1965 when a group of Hells Angels in Berkeley, California, attacked protesters protesting the Vietnam War, though shortly afterward he verbally assaulted the anti-war movement at a press conference — volunteering to kill a group of motorcyclists. behind North Vietnamese lines.
Nor was he involved in the violence that broke out between the Hells Angels and spectators at a free concert at Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco, on December 6, 1969. The Rolling Stones, who headlined, hired Mr. Barger and the Hells Angels. to provide safety, but several Angels ended up beating spectators with pool cues and stabbing one person, Meredith Hunter, to death.
A few days later, Mr. Barger called a radio station to tell his side of the story. He said he’d been sitting on the edge of the stage drinking beer during the Stones’ set and not taking part in the fights, but he defended his fellow club members’ action in self-defense against what he characterized as drug-drenched hippies. destroying their bicycles. (However, he later admitted to pulling a gun on Keith Richards when the band got off to a late start.)
A Hells Angel, Alan Passaro, was charged with murder in the death of Mr. Hunter. He was acquitted on self-defense.
Especially after Altamont, Mr. Barger tried to clean up the image of the Angels by hiring a public relations firm and involving the group in charitable fundraisers. And he insisted that the club — it buzzed when people called the Hells Angels a gang — didn’t deserve the worst impressions of people, which he said had been cultivated by law enforcement.
“No crime was ever conceived by the Hells Angels,” he told The Phoenix New Times in 1992, shortly after his second sentence ended. “It was invented by the FBI. It was paid for by the FBI and I ended up in jail for it. That’s how it goes.”
By the time of Altamont, the organization had fallen even deeper into crime, especially drug trafficking. The FBI estimates that motorcycle gangs controlled a quarter of the heroin trade in the United States in the 1980s.
From 1963, Mr. Barger was arrested almost annually, usually on charges of assault, weapons or drugs. And for a while, he always got off. In 1972, he was charged with the murder of a drug dealer, Servio Winston Agero, but was acquitted when a key witness proved unreliable.
Finally, in 1973, he was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison for possession of narcotics and weapons. He went to Folsom State Prison, where he continued to lead the Hells Angels. In 1977 he was released.
He went to prison again in 1988, convicted of conspiracy to assault members of a rival motorcycle group, the Outlaws.
By the time he left prison, in 1992, he was an elder statesman in the motorcycle world. 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 to speak, and then only in a hoarse whisper. People had to bend down to hear him, reinforcing his image of a leather-clad Godfather.
And while he played less of a part in the Hells Angels, he continued to provide plenty of fodder for magazine profiles, this time as a fatherly, time-hardened sage.
“I think making time is just part of growing up,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. “There are just certain things you have to do in your life. You have to go to school, you have to be in the military, you have to go to jail. It all helps you to have a well-rounded life.”
Ralph Hubert Barger Jr. was born in Modesto, California, on October 8, 1938. When he was 4 months old, his mother, Kathryn (Ritch) Barger, ran away with a Trailways bus driver, leaving him in the care of a nanny. His father moved with Sonny and his sister Shirley to Oakland, where he worked as a stevedore.
At night Sonny’s father took him while he spent his earnings in the town’s waterfront taverns. Sonny learned swearing 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.
He said he was a shy student, he got into fights every day and dropped out after the 10th grade. He enlisted in the military in 1955, but was honorably discharged 14 months later when his superiors learned that he had forged his birth certificate.
Back in Oakland, he wandered from job to job, living with his father for a while and with his sister and her family for a while.
In time, he found himself with a group of partying, troublesome 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 found out that there were at least two other clubs with the same name. Mr. Barger quickly did his best to consolidate the groups and then moved their headquarters to Oakland, effectively making his chapter the first among its peers, with himself as the de facto leader.
Initially, he made ends meet as a machinist. But he soon realized that there was a profit to be made from the Angels’ fame. By the late 1960s, he made most of his income as a consultant for biker gang movies.
He incorporated the Hells Angels and paid 500 shares in the company, which was led by a board of directors made up of the leaders of the various departments. He also trademarked the name and then sued anyone who used it without his permission, including Marvel Comics and the director Roger Corman.
He also monetized his own name, licensing it for use on T-shirts, wine labels and beer bottles. He hawked 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 relinquished his leading role in 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, stopped using drugs, and encouraged children to stay away from cigarettes.
He even took a turn in Hollywood and appeared 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 has always amazed me about reporters all my life,” he told The Los Angeles Times, “99 percent of them will say, ‘Gosh, after talking to you, I notice you’re half intelligent. “You could have been anything you wanted to be!” They don’t realize I am what I want to be.”
Daniel Victor has reported.