Salem Radio Network News Wednesday, September 28, 2022


Hells Angels leader Sonny Barger dies at 83

By Bill Trott

, (Reuters) – Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the Hells Angels motorcycle club leader who became the rough-hewn face of America’s outlaw biker culture and the restlessness, hard living and criminality that came with it, has died, according to an announcement on his Facebook page. He was 83.

Barger asked that the announcement be published, “immediately after my passing.” The cause was cancer, according to the Facebook post.

Barger attained near-mythic status as a rugged hellion and a cool, charismatic leader of men who called themselves 1 percenters – apart from the straight-living 99 percent of the population. Much of that 99 percent was genuinely fearful of the Angels with their menacing appearance, rumbling Harley Davidson motorcycles, violent no-limits lifestyle and black leather wardrobe adorned with the club’s sacred winged skull patch.

The Hells Angels formed in 1948 in Southern California, and Barger helped start a chapter in Oakland, California, nine years later, drawing in the disaffected and the rebellious with its emphasis on brotherhood and freedom. The club would become a long-running target of law enforcement, which considered it a crime syndicate deeply involved in multi-million-dollar drug-dealing operations, gun running, witness intimidation and murder.

Barger himself was convicted of marijuana possession, heroin dealing, assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping, firearms possession and conspiring to blow up the clubhouse of a rival motorcycle gang in Kentucky. But he told the Los Angeles Times the total 13 years he spent in prison was “not much, considering all the fun I’ve had.”


Barger was born Oct. 8, 1938, in Modesto, California, and raised by his hard-drinking father and grandmother after his mother abandoned the family. He dropped out of school, joined the Army with a forged birth certificate and was discharged honorably 13 months later when it was learned that he was too young for service.

He ended up in Oakland, bought a motorcycle and joined a club called the Oakland Panthers but found its members too conventional and not as interested in “riding, drag-racing and raising hell” as he was. Then he found kindred spirits under the Hells Angels umbrella.

The Angels became the predominant biker group in California and eventually the world. Barger emerged as their chief in part thanks to Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 book “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.”

“In any gathering of Hell’s Angels … there is no doubt who is running the show: Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, the Maximum Leader … the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when any action starts,” Thompson wrote. “By turns he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final arbitrator … Barger’s word goes unquestioned.”

Barger, who once said he slept with a pistol under his pillow and extra ammunition under his mattress, reveled in the Angels’ outlaw image.

“The way we were depicted, we were Vikings on acid, raping our way across sunny California on motorcycles forged in the furnaces of hell,” he wrote in a 2001 autobiography. “It was sold to a lot of people and it was free publicity for us. And there ain’t anything wrong with publicity, especially when it’s followed up with money, girls and bikes.”

In the 1960s, Barger and company found themselves at odds with the hippie activist movement rooted in the San Francisco-Oakland area. He led a flock of Angels riding through an anti-war march in 1965, injuring several of the “peace creeps,” as Barger called them. He later sent a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson volunteering to take Angels to fight in Vietnam.


Barger’s Angels developed odd bonds with other elements of the ’60s counterculture, including the Grateful Dead rock band and writer Ken Kesey’s social circle of LSD-dropping Merry Pranksters. But in 1969 they were in the middle of one of the most infamous incidents in rock history – the Rolling Stones’ performance at the Altamont Speedway, about 50 miles east of San Francisco.

The Angels were brought in to keep spectators from climbing onstage and brawls frequently broke out. Barger said that Stones guitarist Keith Richards told him the band would not play until the violence stopped so Barger stuck a pistol in Richards’ side and ordered him to play.

In one audience fight, a spectator pulled a gun and was stabbed to death by an Angel – an incident chronicled in the documentary “Altamont.” Barger said Stones leader Mick Jagger had vilified the Angels and in 1983 a member from Cleveland told a congressional committee the gang plotted to kill Jagger in retaliation.

Barger was diagnosed with throat cancer at age 44 and smoked one last cigarette on the way to the operating room to have his vocal cords removed. Afterward he spoke in a raspy tone by putting a finger over a white patch on his neck and vibrating a muscle in his throat.

In his autobiography, Barger revealed what seemed like heresy – he would have preferred a Japanese-made motorcycle if not for the Angels’ fixation with Harleys.

He was an adviser and appeared in two 1960s movies – “Hells Angels on Wheels” and “Hell’s Angels 1969” – and his novel “Dead in 5 Heartbeats” was made into a movie in 2013. In 2010 Barger appeared on the television series “Sons of Anarchy” as a murderous biker known as Lenny the Pimp.

In 2010 he co-authored “Let’s Ride,” a guide to motorcycling ownership and safety.

Barger, who was married four times, worked out regularly in his later years to maintain a muscled physique while running a motorcycle repair shop in Arizona.

Barger is survived by his wife Zorana.

(Writing by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Diane Craft)


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