Founding member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, Sonny Barger, died yesterday, aged 83. The cause of the ex-convict’s death has been attributed to cancer, and according to all reports on the matter, the infamous biker passed away surrounded by various loved ones, including his wife, Zorana.
In a somewhat rare move, Barger announced his own death today via a pre-written message posted to his Facebook page. The message reads as follows:
“If you are reading this message, you’ll know that I’m gone. I’ve asked that this note be posted immediately after my passing. I’ve lived a long and good life filled with adventure. And I’ve had the privilege to be part of an amazing club. Although I’ve had a public persona for decades, i’ve mostly enjoyed special time with my club brothers, my family, and close friends.
Please know that I passed peacefully after a brief battle with cancer. But also know that in the end, I was surrounded by what really matters: My wife, Zorana, as well as my loved ones. Keep your head up high, stay loyal, remain free, and always value honor. – Sonny.”
Ralph Hubert “Sonny” Barger’s biggest claim to fame is probably his founding the now-infamous Hells Angels motorcycle club. Barger founded the Oakland, California chapter of the club on April 1, 1957 – according to the club’s official history, nine years after the first Hells Angels chapter was founded in 1948. Barger founded the Oakland chapter after his original motorcycle club, the Oakland Panthers, had disbanded a year earlier. Barger and a few other club members would go on to adopt a motorcycle patch from North Sacramento, an aviator cap with a set of wings, as the Hells Angels’ “Death’s Head” logo and ride on to southern California, where they were involved in infighting with other clubs that also bore the name Hells Angels. Barger was named national president of a conglomerated club in 1958.
Sonny Barger: A Life of Infamy and Fame
As the head of the Hells Angels, Barger would lead the club into many tangles with law enforcement, with the most prominent and best-known example being the riots that broke out at the Altamont Rolling Stones concert, in which Hells Angels club members were hired to provide security for the band, but ended up beating audience members with billiard sticks, knocking out Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin, and stabbing and killing and pistol-wielding 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, a Rolling Stones fan.
Sonny Barger would claim self-defense in his 2000 autobiography, titled Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club; Barger placed full responsibility for the Altamont incident on the shoulders of the Rolling Stones for agitating the crowd. Even outside his position as leader of the Hells Angels, Barger boasted a rap sheet of his own, having been acquitted of murder in 1972 and arrested in 1973 and 1988 on various drug and weapons charges.
Barger’s slow climb to fame began in the 1960s, when he featured in nonfiction novels such as Hell’s Angels (1967) by Hunter S. Thompson, depicting Thompson’s year in the Hell’s Angels and their eventual turn on him, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) by Tom Wolfe, in which the Hells Angels form an unlikely alliance with a group of hippies thanks to copious amounts of alcohol and LSD. In 1969, he appeared as himself in Hells Angels ’69, directed by Lee Madden and Conny Van Dyke; in 1967, he made a similar appearance in Hells Angels on Wheels, directed by Richard Rush and starring Jack Nicholson. Barger also appeared as himself in Gimme Shelter, a 1970 documentary on the Altamont concert, as well as documentaries like This World (2004), Harley Davidson: The Spirit of America (2005), Gonzo (2008), and Tracks (2008).
He would also appear as an extra in Dead in 5 Heartbeats (2013). Still, Barger’s most significant character role came in 2010 when he appeared as Lenny “The Pimp” Janowitz in three episodes of Sons of Anarchy, the popular TV series created by Kurt Sutter. According to Deadline, Barger also assisted Sutter as a “de facto consultant on biker culture.”
Sonny Barger was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1983 and prostate cancer in 2010, but the specific cause of his death is unknown.