Poppa's career began when he was still in his teens. Not long after graduating from David T. Howard High School in 1953, he began working with a black vocal group called The Royals at an all-white venue, the Knotty Pine Supper Club in Forest Park. Things were different then.
"There was the time when blacks couldn't go to the bar to drink beer," Poppa recalls. "I'd just stay in the dressing room -- but it wasn't a dressing room, it was the kitchen. I'd tell the waitress what I'd want and she'd bring it. And then when it was time for me to go on, the waitress would tell me, 'You go on in about five minutes, Poppa.'"
Poppa became one of the first black artists to work at the Imperial Hotel on Baker Street, before moving to the Royal Peacock in 1956 or '57. At the same time, he was working at the Lithonia Country Club.
"Around the [Lithonia] club, they had a race track," Poppa recalls. "On holidays they had stock car races in the day -- barbecues, picnics -- and at night I'd be playing in the club. It was just a club in the woods .... no carpet on the floor, no linoleum, just a hardwood floor. And they had a 60- or 70-watt bulb [for light]. Didn't have no pretty light with balls going around."
Still, the all-black Lithonia venue drew top soul and R&B acts; in addition to the artists mentioned above, frequent performers included Jackie Wilson, Gatemouth Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, Little Willie John and others.
By the '60s, after doing some recording, Poppa began traveling. He toured with Sam Cooke, played the famed Apollo Theater twice, worked in Philadelphia and later developed a remarkable following in Canada. Despite his success, it wasn't until the early 1980s that Poppa's parents, particularly his father, accepted his vocation.
Julius High Sr. was a prominent minister. During a visit home, his father singled Poppa out during a church service, chastising him for performing on Sunday. Poppa stood his ground. "I said, 'Daddy, God didn't intend for me to be no preacher, 'cause if he did he would let me know. I've been in 31 states, 197 cities, six countries, have flown on all the airlines, and the Lord has blessed me to come back here. I must not be doing nothing wrong.'" Eventually, with his wife's coaxing, Julius Sr. came to recognize his son's unique gifts.
In the late '80s, with his father and other family members in poor health, Poppa returned to Atlanta and found a musical home at Blind Willie's. His band, Atlanta Heat, features his son Greg on guitar, along with drummer Ron Kent, bassist David Faulkner and guitarist Thomas Sober. Vocalist Willie Hill often joins in. "Willie carries star billing 99.9 percent of the time," Poppa says fondly. "He's a top R&B singer in his own right."
At Blind Willie's, as ever, Poppa aims to please, and puts his experience to work. "I know what to do to satisfy a crowd," he says. "When I get on stage and start the first song, I'll look around. If I see one person smiling, one person that's got rhythm, I'll work to them, and it spreads."