Born Joseph Lichtman in Brooklyn, New York, Layton began his career as a dancer in Wonderful Town (1953), and he appeared uncredited in the ensemble of the original live TV production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1957) starring Julie Andrews. However from the start, his primary interest was in musical staging. In addition to his many legitimate theatre credits, he conceived and directed Broadway concerts for Bette Midler (1975), Diana Ross (1976), and Harry Connick, Jr. (1990).
In 1965, Layton won an Emmy Award for his work on My Name is Barbra, the television special that introduced the public to the more sophisticated side of Barbra Streisand. It was his first of four collaborations with the star; the others were Color Me Barbra (1966), The Belle of 14th Street (1967), and Barbra Streisand ... And Other Musical Instruments (1973). He also directed and/or produces specials for Paul Lynde, Hal Linden, Richard Pryor, and Olivia Newton-John.
Layton broke into films as the dance director for Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967. He executive produced the film version of Annie (1982) and reunited with Midler to choreograph For The Boys (1991).
Layton directed the 1972 West End and 1973 Los Angeles productions of Scarlett, the musical stage adaptation of Gone with the Wind, and the 1985 world premiere of the Jule Styne musical Pieces of Eight in Edmonton.
Joe Layton also choreographed a ballet for the Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet, London titled The Grand Tour which received critical acclaim as well as a warm reception from the audiences around the UK.