Payne studied early on with Vic Berton and played locally.
In 1944 he began a professional, playing with the Dud & Paul Bascomb band, Hot Lips Page, Earl Bostic (1945-47) and Tiny Grimes (off and on during 1947-50).
Payne spent from 1950-53 with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra and led his own band for two years.. With Count Basie during 1955-65, Sonny Payne toured constantly, and appeared on many classic recordings. After leaving in 1965, he briefly led a trio, worked with Frank Sinatra and then had a long stint with Harry James' Big Band (1966-73); James always did want his band to sound like Basie's! In his later years Sonny Payne had a short second period with Count (1973-74), toured Europe with Illinois Jacquet and also returned to James' orchestra shortly before his death. Sonny Payne never led a record date of his own but was on many Basie records, some by James plus a few combo dates.