The True Story Of Sonny Barger, The Hells Angels President Who Led The Club To International Fame

Published April 10, 2024
Updated April 17, 2024

Ralph "Sonny" Barger was just 20 years old when he took control of the Hells Angels in 1958. Under his leadership, the small California motorcycle club quickly grew into a notorious group with chapters across 63 countries.

Hells Angels Motorcycle Club has hundreds of chapters in at least 63 countries around the world. Author Hunter S. Thompson infamously chronicled his time with the group in his book Hell’s Angels, and shows like Sons of Anarchy have likewise depicted the notorious club. However, among the group’s many members, one figure stood out as the de facto leader: Sonny Barger.

Thompson described Barger as “the Maximum Leader” of Hells Angels. He embodied everything about the group and played a major role in unifying and incorporating the organization. While Barger himself would deny claims that he was the club’s president, it was clear that many members revered him as such.

Sonny Barger

dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock PhotoRalph “Sonny” Barger, the founder of the Oakland, California chapter of Hells Angels.

It was also Barger’s assertion that Hells Angels was not, in fact, an organized crime gang — despite Barger serving time in prison for trafficking heroin and conspiring to bomb a rival group of bikers, the Outlaws.

While Sonny Barger may not have been the man who started Hells Angels, he certainly embodied the group more than any other member — and his wild life shows exactly why.

Sonny Barger’s Life Before Hells Angels

Ralph Hubert Barger Jr. was born in Modesto, California, on Oct. 8, 1938. From the start, however, his life was unstable. Barger’s mother ran off when he was just four months old, leaving the boy and his older sister, Shirley, in the care of their alcoholic father.

As a child, Barger frequently got into trouble at school, starting fights with other students and even assaulting teachers. Eventually, he dropped out during his sophomore year of high school.

Rather than succumbing to drug addiction, as many of his friends did, the future Hells Angels leader instead joined the U.S. Army at the age of 16 with a forged birth certificate. He was honorably discharged 14 months later when Army officials realized he was too young to enlist.

Young Sonny Barger

Oakland Police Department/Wikimedia CommonsA mugshot of Sonny Barger at age 18 in 1957.

Upon returning to California in 1956, Barger joined the Oakland Panthers, a short-lived motorcycle club made up of fellow veterans. Although the Panthers didn’t last long, they did pave the way for Barger to join up with the Hells Angels and cement his legacy.

Founding The Oakland Chapter Of Hells Angels

After the dissolution of the Oakland Panthers, Barger met Don “Boots” Reeves, and a patch on Boots’ jacket gave him and Barger new direction.

“We talked about starting up another club,” Barger wrote in his 2001 memoir Hell’s Angel. “One of the bike riders, Boots, Don Reeves, wore a modified Air Force-like patch he’d found in Sacramento, a small skull wearing an aviator cap set inside a set of wings. I thought it was cool as hell.”

They discovered that the patch had belonged to a defunct motorcycle club from Sacramento, and Boots came up with the idea to name their organization after the logo: Hells Angels. They left out the apostrophe because it wouldn’t fit on their new patch.

Thus, in April 1957, the Oakland chapter of Hells Angels was born.

Sonny Barger’s Rise Through The Ranks

At the time, Barger and Reeves didn’t realize that their new club was a part of a larger organization. It just so happened that they picked the same name and patch.

Reeves’ and Barger’s group was described as a “wild bunch” who played by their own rules. That changed in 1958, however, when Barger met another member of Hells Angels who informed him that his was just one of several loosely connected clubs operating under the same name. Throughout that year, Barger would visit these other branches as the president of the Oakland chapter, dividing lines of territory while discussing overarching rules for the organization.

Hells Angels Leader

Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock PhotoSonny Barger appeared in several films about the Hells Angels, including the 1983 film Hell’s Angels Forever.

Of course, the various branches didn’t always agree or get along, but they mostly kept out of each other’s way, instead focusing on rivalries with other motorcycle clubs.

Barger’s influence grew so quickly that when Otto Friedli, the founder of the original Hells Angels chapter in San Bernardino, was arrested in connection with a robbery, Barger became the de facto Hells Angels leader. He also relocated the organization’s national headquarters to his chapter in Oakland, and a wave of new members signed up.

Things were looking good for Barger and his club, but it soon became obvious that the Hells Angels wasn’t just a pastime — Barger wanted it to be his full-time job. This meant he had to make money, and there was one easy way to do that: drugs.

Drug Trafficking, Arrests, And Controversies

Barger was familiar with drugs, having grown up on the Oakland streets in the late ’40s and early ’50s.

As he explained in his memoir, “The Oakland drug scene in the ’50s was marijuana on one side, heroin on the other, with pep pills floating somewhere in between… I didn’t particularly enjoy speed, because even the smallest amount wired me up for days. I’ve always had enough energy to keep me going naturally.”

Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels initially started selling drugs like marijuana and cocaine in the 1950s and early 1960s by working as “part-time distributors” for other criminal organizations — though, officially, Hells Angels wasn’t a gang itself. Rather, Barger claimed, the individual members operated of their own volition and did not necessarily reflect the organization as a whole.

The Hells Angels were also staunchly anti-communist and often clashed with anti-war protesters, whom Barger called “peace creeps.” As reported by The New York Times in 1973, Barger once told an Oakland Tribune reporter: “Our oath is allegiance to the United States of America. If there should be trouble, we would jump to enlist and fight. More than 90 percent of our members are veterans. We don’t want no slackers.”

In 1965, a group of Hells Angels in Berkeley assaulted anti-Vietnam War protestors. Barger, however, was not present. He did make his opinion on anti-war activists known during a news conference shortly after, though — and he didn’t disagree with what his fellow Hells Angels had done.

Then, on Dec. 6, 1969, Barger and several other Hells Angels were hired by The Rolling Stones to provide security at a concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco. The situation quickly turned violent and controversial for the club. During the performance, several Hells Angels beat audience members with pool cues — and even stabbed a man named Meredith Hunter to death.

Barger first claimed that he wasn’t personally involved in the fight, but he later said he held a gun to Keith Richards to force the band to play on despite the violence that had broken out.

Hells Angels At Altamont Free Concert

PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock PhotoSonny Barger was present when Hells Angels members attacked the crowd at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969.

The Altamont Free Concert wasn’t Barger’s first — or last — brush with the law. He’d been arrested on charges of drug dealing, kidnapping, and even murder, but he mainly avoided jail time until 1973, when he was convicted for possessing heroin and firearms.

He was released four years later and maintained control of the Hells Angels, which he always insisted was unfairly demonized by law enforcement.

“There never was a crime thought up by the Hells Angels,” he told the Phoenix New Times in 1992. “It was thought up by the F.B.I. It was paid for by the F.B.I. And I went to jail for it. That’s the way it goes.”

In 1988, he was convicted again, this time for conspiring against another motorcycle club called the Outlaws and reportedly planning to bomb their headquarters. Once again, he spent almost four years behind bars.

Looking back on his life in 1994, the Hells Angels leader told the Los Angeles Times, “I think doing time is just part of growing up. There’s just certain things you’ve got to do in your life. You’ve got to go to school, you’ve got to go in the Army, you’ve got to go to jail. It all helps you to have a well-rounded life.”

By that point, he had largely stepped down from his leadership role in the club, though he continued to give frequent interviews and wrote several books about his life with the Hells Angels.

Sonny Barger died on June 29, 2022, at age 83, after a battle with liver cancer. He announced his own death in a pre-written post on his personal Facebook page: “I’ve lived a long and good life filled with adventure. And I’ve had the privilege to be part of an amazing club… Keep your head up high, stay loyal, remain free, and always value honor.”


After reading about Hells Angels leader Sonny Barger, go inside the wild life of Nucky Johnson and his real-life Boardwalk Empire. Then, learn about the brief and tragic life of Charles Manson Jr., the cult leader’s son who took his own life.

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Austin Harvey
author
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
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Cara Johnson
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A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Harvey, Austin. "The True Story Of Sonny Barger, The Hells Angels President Who Led The Club To International Fame." AllThatsInteresting.com, April 10, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/sonny-barger. Accessed May 29, 2024.