Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club who provided security at a deadly 1969 festival headlined by The Rolling Stones, has died at the age of 83.
He “passed peacefully after a brief battle with cancer,” according to a statement on his official Facebook page.
“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,” the statement read. “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.”
Born October 8th, 1938, as Ralph Hubert Barger, Jr., “Sonny” founded the original Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels in 1957. While it may not have been the first — the San Bernardino chapter in 1947 is often credited with that distinction — it was undoubtedly the most influential.
Barger’s gruff charisma, muscular frame, and penchant for gritty bon mots (“Discover your limits by exceeding them”) made him one of the faces of the counterculture movement, even as his entrepreneurial savvy — and willingness to retain an intellectual property rights lawyer — turned HAMC into a financial force. It may have started with branded t-shirts, but soon the Hells Angels name was on everything from yo-yos to wine.
With Barger in attendance, the Hells Angels earned an ignominious place in music history on December 6th, 1969 at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Approximately 300,000 people came to see the event billed as “Woodstock West,” with The Rolling Stones headlining, and openers including Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The Grateful Dead had been scheduled to perform right before the Stones, but pulled out mid-festival as the crowd became more violent.