At age 15 he became a founding member of The Four Tops, founded in Detroit, Michigan as The Four Aims. The four members -Lawrence, Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, and Renaldo “Obie” Benson- met at a party in Detroit in 1953 and the next year began singing around town as the Four Aims. To avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers, they soon changed their name and in 1956 signed a recording contract with Chess Records in 1956, with the help of Payton’s cousin, Roquel Davis, who joined the group as a songwriter.
For Chess they recorded the song, “Kiss Me Baby” but it was a flop and went onto record with the Red Top and Riverside Record Labels. In 1960 they signed with Columbia and had a better success with jazz and pop music.
In 1963 they recorded with Berry Gordy’s Motown Label, and released the album, ‘Breaking Through.’ Gordy later put them back into R&B material and put them with Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team.
After a full decade the group had numerous hits including “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” a Top Ten hit in 1964, “Ask The Lonely,” a hit in 1965, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugarpie, Honeybunch),” #1 in the spring of 1965, “It’s The Same Old Song,” a Top Five hit in 1965, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” one of their finest singles ever, released in 1966, “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” a Top Ten hit in 1967, “Bernadette,” a Top Five hit in 1967, “7 Rooms of Gloom,” a Top Twenty hit in 1967, “You Keep Running Away,” a Top Twenty hit in 1967, and two 1968 hits, “If I Were A Carpenter” and “Walk Away Renee.”
In 1970 they joined producer Frank Wilson and they recorded a pop standard of Tommy Edward’s, “It’s All In The Game” and a ballad with ‘the Supremes’ entitled, “River Deep, Mountain High” in 1971.
In 1972 they left Motown and joined ABC-Dunhill, teaming up with Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, and released, “Keeper Of The Castle” a Top Ten hit, and “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)” a smash hit that was their last Top Five Pop hit. In 1973 they recorded the theme song for the film, “Shaft In Africa” and released the song, “Catfish” in 1976. In 1981 they signed with the Casablanca Record Label and released, “When She Was My Girl” a Top Ten hit. In 1983 they rejoined Motown and in 1988 left and signed with Arista Records, where they recorded, “Indestructible” a Top 40 Pop hit, which was their last.
They remained together for over four decades, having gone from 1953 until 1997 without a single change in personnel and they helped define the Motown Sound of the 1960s.
After their hey days, the Four Tops worked steadily, performing in Las Vegas showrooms, small clubs and large arenas, emerging occasionally with a hit record, such as “When She Was My Girl” in 1981. Among their performing venues in Southern California were Humphrey’s on Shelter Island in San Diego, the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and several clubs in Los Angeles, where they recorded with ABC-Dunhill records.
In 1990 they were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Lawrence was the one who created the smooth, sharp jazz – pop hamonies for the group on their many hits such as “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. Levi Stubbs, the group’s over-shadowing popular lead singer, said that Payton was crucial to the Tops because “he was responsible for the harmony.”
Payton died in June 1997 of liver cancer at the age of 59. He was later replaced by Theo Peoples.