WHITMAN — In a final standing ovation for his lifetime of generating music and melody, musician Leonard J. “Lennie” Baker, 69, of Whitman was laid to rest Tuesday at the Colebrook Cemetery surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and classmates.
His bandmate and longtime friend Paul Pennini, also a graduate of W-H and part of the group Paul Wayne and the Wantells, performed “Rock ’n’ Roll is Here to Stay” in front of Baker’s casket — asking those in attendance to rise one last time for Baker. Pennini said the song was his connection to his fellow musician and would forever remain that memory. So he jammed on his guitar with not a dry eye in the room.
As a graduate of Whitman Hanson class of 1963 Baker was a well-known member of the 1950s-style doo-wop group Sha Na Na and appeared on a TV variety show from 1977- 1981. The group made their biggest appearance in the classic movie “Grease” in 1978. Baker sang lead on “Blue Moon,” a song he continued to perform for more than 30 years — even selling out Carnegie Hall. The movie soundtrack album went multi-platinum. He never disregarded smaller venues and hit all the local Boston night clubs, colleges and universities around the country. Fame didn’t change him. “Lennie never left his roots,” said sister- in- law Marcia Baker. “He was a grounded man and he did what he could for his family and the town of Whitman.”
He was always generous and committed to his family. Although he had failing health, he received a kidney transplant from his nephew David Baker, surviving 15 more years. He recently celebrated the anniversary in his life, said the Rev. Sue Webster of Winthrop Church of Holbrook who performed his services. He celebrated the millennium and officially retired Jan. 1, 2000 after playing at the International Dateline in Fiji. He was one of four brothers and his natural gift of music emerged in elementary school when he learned to play the clarinet then the saxophone. He was asked to perform with the W-H high school band while he was still in middle school. He performed early on in his career at local clubs with the musical group the Pilgrims and later The Spellbinders. He joined Sha Na Na in 1970 performing with them for the next 30 years. He sang, played sax and enjoyed life spending time on the water with his two boats, and living in Martha’s Vineyard for several years. However the musician was only one side of Baker’s personality. His family and friends described him as a generous, kind-hearted soul.
Baker’s picture hangs in the W-H Hall of Fame. His first and last public performances were in the presence of his community. He appeared on stage in the musical “Grease” in February 2014 with the cast at W-H under the direction of Laurie Healey, theater director and owner of Dance Dimensions in Whitman. His career came full circle when he appeared in one show with the full cast even though he was in a wheelchair at the time. “I asked him to attend the show and meet the kids…he was so personable,” she said. “He offered to perform ‘Blue Moon’ in the show.” He spoke with the cast, answering questions, and was a classy, wonderful spirit, she said. “He finished where he started off,” said Healey who emphasized how thrilling it was to have him perform and attend their show. Baker had been in failing health recently and died peacefully on Feb 24, at the South Shore Hospital in Weymouth.