A sincere student of greats such as Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, singer and multitalented musician ZZ Ward has a name that seems ripped from a yellowing poster for some Chicago nightclub summit of old fedora-ed blues guys.
Perhaps that’s what David Letterman thought he was getting before Ward and band ripped through an incendiary version of "365 Days” on his show last Monday.
“Wow, that was great,” Letterman said to the band, somewhat breathlessly, before planting an awkward kiss on Ward’s hand. ZZ Ward has the musical chops, and the signature fedora, but isn’t an old blues guy at all.
There are plenty of contradictions from the 27-year-old Los Angeles resident, born Zsuzsanna Eva Ward, who grew up with a blues musician father in the small town of Roseburg, Ore. A pianist, guitarist and harmonica player, Ward the singer worships Big Mama Thornton and Etta James, but the album in heavy rotation in her youth was Nas’ “Illmatic.”
“I listen to a lot of blues, and a lot of hip-hop,” Ward says by phone from the road, which leads her to the No Snow Ball in Boca Raton Saturday night. Her influences include “Big Mama Thornton, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters … but also Outkast, Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Biggy, Nas, Jay-Z …”
The result is a blending that seems true to both genres, and defies easy categorization. Perhaps that’s why her songs turn up in some unlikely places.
Ward’s 2012 debut album, “Until the Casket Drops,” which includes a cameo by Kendrick Lamar (“Cryin’ Wolf”), is still drawing fresh attention. The single “Put the Gun Down” is part of the promotional music for A&E’s new barrel-racing reality show “Rodeo Girls,” and the torchy blues number “365 Days” made an unlikely appearance on Ryan Seacrest’s “American Top 40” radio show a few weeks ago, with Ward as the “breakout artist of the week.”
“That was amazing. It shows what can happen if you are willing to work really hard for something,” she says.
Bringing the blues to pop-music fans isn’t a responsibility Ward feels an obligation to take on. In fact, it may be the other way around.
“I hope everybody checks out my music. I kind of enjoy older people who like blues singers, maybe they get a little more appreciation for a hip-hop sound,” she says. “Younger kids might hear me covering Son House, and maybe they see lyrics they can relate to. That would be really cool for me.”
IF YOU GO
The No Snow Ball, presented by 97.9 WRMF and Sunny 107.9, includes the Goo Goo Dolls, the Fray, Five for Fighting, Colbie Caillat, Parachute and ZZ Ward beginning 6 p.m. Saturday at Mizner Park Amphitheatre (590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton). Tickets cost $40 (advance general admission), $55 (day of show). Call 877-979-9763 or go to WRMF.com.