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Sonny Barger, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club leader that shaped and defined what outlaw biker clubs are, died today at 83. He died of liver cancer in California on June 29. Born in 1938 in Modesto, California, he started the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels when he was only 19. From there, he shaped the Harley-riding group’s notoriety and lifestyle into what we think of as biker gangs.

Who are the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club?

Sonny Barger
Sonny Barger started the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels in the 60’s| Getty

The original Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club was founded in 1948 in Fontana, California, 50 miles east of LA. But the Oakland chapter became its symbol. The gang was involved in many headline-making crimes throughout the years. There were books, and even movies about and featuring the club.

In 1969, the Rolling Stones hired Barger and the gang to do security for the infamous Altamont, California concert. This is where one of the gang members stabbed a concertgoer to death. The stabbing was the focus of the Stones’ documentary “Give Me Shelter.”

Hunter S. Thompson wrote his infamous book about Barger and the motorcycle club

Sonny Barger
Sonny Barger, founder of the Oakland, California chapter of the Hell’s Angels | Getty

Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote his famous book about the gang called “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.” Embedded in the gang, he captured their comings and goings leading up to the book, at the behest of Barger. Before he was through, gang members beat and stomped him. He ended up landing in the hospital for a time.

Before his inglorious finale with the club, he witnessed chain whippings, stompings, drug and alcohol-fueled rage, and much more. Years later, he described Barger as “smart and crafty, and he has a kind of wild animal cunning.” Barger himself ended up writing three books, including the bestseller, “Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club.” 

Barger spent time in a federal penitentiary

Sonny Barger
Hell’s Angel Ralph “Sonny” Barger appears at a book signing | Getty

With the gang involved in various crime pursuits, it wasn’t long before Barger landed in prison. The drugs and weapons charges meant incarceration, as did a subsequent conspiracy to a murder charge. That one got him five years in a federal penitentiary. 

Without Barger, the Hell’s Angels would have been just another motorcycle club. But with him and its notoriety, he also turned the gang into a brand. “Mr. Barger’s rough and anarchic manner belied a disciplined entrepreneurial streak,” said the Post. “He promoted his renegade brand, carefully marketing Hells Angels-themed T-shirts, yo-yos, sunglasses, and California wines. And he registered trademarks on club logos and designs, and retained an intellectual property rights lawyer to sue poachers, a frequent occurrence.”

In 1998, he stepped down from being the leader of the Harley-riding gang. His later years revolved around his motorcycle repair shop, yoga, and increasing interest in import bikes. But Barger will always be remembered as the eyes, ears, and driving force behind the most notorious motorcycle gang on the planet.


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