Given the accounting practices of many independent record companies in the 1940s and '50s, John Lee Hooker was doubtless wise to believe he wasn't getting the sort of money he deserved after 1948's "Boogie Chillun" made him a star, but rather than fight with the guys in the front office, Hooker instead opted to ignore the exclusivity provisions of his contract and recorded for a number of different labels under a wide variety of pseudonyms. The misleadingly titled I'm a Boogie Man: The Essential Masters 1948-1953 collects not the cream of Hooker's work for the Modern label, which issued his best-known work during this period, but 19 sides primarily recorded "under the table" in Joe Van Battle's makeshift Detroit recording studio, located in the back room of a record shop, and issued under the names Texas Slim and Johnny Lee by King. There's no doubt that this is Hooker, and he's in fine fettle on many of these tracks, especially the high-powered boogie of "Slim's Stomp" and the malevolent "I'm Gonna Kill That Woman." However, one gets the feeling Hooker was saving some of his better material for his "real" recording sessions and, more importantly, Van Battle's studio setup was crude even by the standards of the day; as a consequence, these sides are noisy and overloaded even when the surface noise of the discs isn't audible, and the remastering hasn't changed the fact that a lot of the details of this music get swallowed up in the sonic murk. Featuring frankly lousy recordings of some fine music, I'm a Boogie Man: The Essential Masters 1948-1953 isn't a bad set for Hooker completists, but it's by no means essential, and casual observers need not bother.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming