Sha Na Na sax man leaves a legacy of doo-wop memories

Members  of Sha Na Na in London in 1975.
Keystone/Getty Images
Members of Sha Na Na in London in 1975.

WHITMAN — They had shared stages together across the globe. As bandmates, they rubbed elbows with greatness. Once upon a time, Bruce Springsteen and Jay Leno opened for them. Their TV show was a smash hit.

So as the heart and soul of the old rock and doo-wop group Sha Na Na lay dying last week, Jon Bauman was on the phone from the West Coast. He asked for a favor from the family. Please put the phone up to Lennie’s ear, he told them. I have something I want to say.

Lennie Baker.

Lennie Baker — a bear of a man who carried his saxophone into gigs from the Combat Zone to Carnegie Hall — heard the voice of the stage character known as “Bowzer’’ just moments before dying too soon at the age of 69.


“He’s my daughter’s godfather — a real character and one of those people who was always loyal and had a terrific heart,’’ Bauman said. “I told him I loved him. I said, ‘Grease for Peace.’ And then I sang ‘Goodnight, Sweetheart.’ I hope he heard it.’’

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Grease for Peace and “Goodnight, Sweetheart’’ were the signature signoffs of Sha Na Na’s comedy and variety show, which ran on television from 1977 to 1980, amid Mr. Baker’s 30 years with the group. You may remember his soulful rendition of “Blue Moon’’ in the 1978 movie “Grease.’’

That performance, as John Travolta roamed the dance floor, was perhaps the most celebrated moment of a career that had its roots on the South Shore, where Baker performed with a five-piece rock band called the Pilgrims. Jocko Marcellino was in that group and later became a founding member of Sha Na Na.

“We were looking for a sax player, and I said, ‘Do I have a guy for you. He’d be perfect,’ ” Marcellino recalled. “Lennie was a great balladeer. He brings a great sax. He could sing harmonies. And, for a big guy, he could dance.’’ The year was 1970.

Lennie Baker of Sha Na Na.

And, with that, Sha Na Na was off and running. Steve Martin and Bob Marley were among their opening acts. They performed in New York’s Central Park, the Wang Center, the South Shore Music Circus. They toured 23 countries.


Through it all, Lennie Baker — cantankerous and hilarious — remained a son of Whitman.

“The little guy was always his friend,’’ said Jim Nolan, a close friend. “He was always with the roadies. There was nobody too important and nobody who wasn’t important enough for him to spend time with.’’

His early days in Boston as a “Pilgrim” band member, Baker told the Globe in 1981, grounded him.

“We often played the Combat Zone seven nights a week from 8 until 2 in the morning,’’ he said then. “It was crazy. Anytime I think that life on the road with Sha Na Na gets tough, I just think about those days in the Combat Zone dressed up as a Pilgrim. Any ideas I have about getting sick of Sha Na Na quickly disappear.’’

There were plenty of Sha Na Na mementoes at the Blanchard Funeral Chapel, where Mr. Baker’s funeral was held on Tuesday. Photos of the glory years. A Sha Na Na embroidered jacket at the head of the coffin. A framed platinum record of the “Grease” soundtrack.


But at the end, those who knew him best and loved him most said farewell to someone who was more than a talented musician and a burly saxophonist.

“A great guy and a wonderful brother,’’ Lee Baker told me at the funeral home as mourners assembled.

Nearby, Allan Tufankjian recalled meeting Lennie Baker as a little boy. They sat near each other in Mrs. Joubert’s kindergarten classroom. It cemented a friendship that lasted a lifetime.

“Family — that was what Lennie was all about forever and ever,’’ said Tufankjian, among those leading a final standing ovation on Tuesday.

He said he spoke with his old pal almost nightly on his way home from work at his law office.

Now, friends hear Lennie Baker’s voice through sound system speakers. A saxophone wails. Memories fly. Tears flow.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at