Unfortunately, we have to start with the sad news. Sonny Barger (real name – Ralph Hubert Barger Jr.) – a legendary figure who inspires both terror and unparalleled respect among bikers – recently passed away. On June 29, 2022, the body of 83-year-old Sonny gave in under the pressure of third cancer in a row – liver cancer. In his so-called “spiritual testament”, posted on Facebook after his death, he spoke of the creed he followed throughout his life.
Barger urged bikers not to give up freedom, not to betray themselves, to cherish honour, to remain true to themselves, and always keep their heads high.
He did not regret anything in his life, except that he smoked excessively and was addicted to drugs.
It isn’t easy to find a more whole and absolutely self-confident personality among bikers. His club mates acknowledged that Barger, with his equanimity and zeal, could inspire even a complete loser to fight bravely. However, there were enough contradictions in his character. On the one hand, Barger liked so much the state-imposed order in the army that he established a truly military discipline for the Hells Angels. On the other hand, he and his biker club were associated with various crimes, ranging from drug possession to murder, endless police harassment, and racism.
How Barger Became a Biker
If I could sum up Sonny’s life in one word, that would be “struggle“. He said he had a simple choice – join the beatniks or motorcyclists. Barger said that if he had joined the beatniks, who, as he believed, later degenerated into hippies and lost their values, he would have died in the 50s or 60s. Besides, Sonny simply couldn’t become part of the government system or go into quiet business like keeping a market stall or a shop.
Barger came from a family whose living conditions and shared values could lead him, at best, to hard labor and drugs and, at worst, to repeated and lengthy prison sentences. Judge for yourself: his mother left him at the age of 4 months and was never interested in his life, while his father drank heavily, did odd jobs in the Californian city of Oakland, and his grandmother was a religious nut. In short, no one cared about Barger as a child. However, little Sonny decided not to give up and learned to defend himself.
Endless conflicts at school with peers and teachers made him tougher. When he was kicked out of school, he simply forged his birth certificate and joined the army. Perhaps, if the deception had not been revealed a year later, Barger would not have become a famous biker but an honorary military veteran.
All in all, Barger would have hung around as a day labourer after the army and would have lived with relatives if he had not accidentally seen the cult film “The Wild One“. Whether it was Brando who helped him make his mind or not, Sonny decided in favor of bikers and joined the Oakland Panthers.
The brainchild of Barger’s lifetime – Hells Angels
In the Oakland Panthers, Barger stayed for a short time. A year later, on April 1, 1957, he founded his own motorcycle club in Oakland and called it the Hells Angels.
Reflecting on why he created his motorcycle community, Barger said that he needed a second family. A family of motorcyclists devoted to bikes and drag racing, not thinking much about children and spouses.
Sonny independently defined the Hell’s Angels value system, which consisted of:
- Rigid army discipline and subordination within the club.
- Absolute fidelity to each other.
- Ban on violence within the motorcycle community.
- The taboo on making advances to another clubmate’s woman.
- Penalties for not attending motorcycle club meetings.
- Mandatory possession of a Harley, although Sonny himself admitted in private conversations that he had to tolerate Harley-Davidsons because this is part of the image of the Hells Angels. But in reality, he liked BMW or Honda ST1100.
Of course, Barger was unaware that in 1957 there were already several motorcycle clubs in California using the Hells Angels as part of their name. However, to Barger’s credit, it didn’t confuse him. He traveled to all these clubs with his entourage and offered them to unite, which eventually happened. With the formidable backing of most Hells Angels branches, Sonny has boldly engaged in crime and biker wars for many decades.
Only in 2002, after the end of the Quebec Massacre, the Hells Angels finally won their right to be number one among “1%” biker clubs such as the Pagans, Bandidos, and Outlaws.
Barger fought with the state in the same way as with competitors in the biker environment – uncompromisingly and mercilessly. Although, at the same time, he was an ardent patriot of the United States – he even offered to send Hells Angels to Vietnam “to kick Viet Congs’ asses”.
As for violations of the law, Sonny was terribly outrageous. Take, for example, his public admission that he pointed a gun at one of the Rolling Stones members during a concert in December 1969, and ordered him to continue playing while the fan riots were starting. However, despite numerous crimes, Barger was imprisoned only 2 times. According to rumours, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado actively helped him solve problems with the law.
Barger’s other hobbies
It may surprise you, but Sonny was a staunch supporter of improved bike safety and demanded motorcycle factories make this a priority when developing new models. Barger even wrote a book, “Let’s Ride: Sonny Barger’s Guide to Motorcycling“, on the subject.
If you want to see the legend on the screen and hear his voice, then watch the movies:
- Hell’s Angels ’69
- Final episodes of the 3rd and 4th season of the series “Sons of Anarchy“.