Robert Eria Telson was born in Cannes, France, in 1949. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He began studying piano when he was five years old. By nine had already performed Mozart on television and given a concert of his own compositions. At 14, he wrote 72 love songs for his first girlfriend, Margie. At 15 and 16 he studied organ, counterpoint and harmony in France with Nadia Boulanger. He followed this with a degree in music from Harvard University in 1970.
After graduation from Harvard, Telson’s first professional work was as a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble from 1972-1974. After that began his immersion in ethnic world musics, as the pianist of salsa bandleaders Tito Puente and Machito. He was then organist of the gospel group Five Blind Boys of Alabama, for whom he also composed, arranged and produced. Collaborating with director/writer Lee Breuer, in 1983 he composed the musical The Gospel at Colonus, an adaptation of Sophocles's Oedipus tale, featuring Morgan Freeman, the Five Blind Boys and the Soul Stirrers. Newsweek Magazine called it: "The best white man’s capturings of the essence of black music since Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess."
As a composer, Telson received an Academy Award nomination for his song "Calling You" from the movie Bagdad Café, as well as Pulitzer, Grammy and Tony Award nominations for his Broadway musicals "The Gospel at Colonus" and "Chronicle of a Death Foretold", an adaptation of the Gabriel García Márquez novel.
Telson has composed soundtracks for American, French, German and Argentinian films (including five for Percy Adlon), as well as a ballet score for Twyla Tharp (Sextet) His songs have been recorded by many international artists, such as Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, George Benson, Joe Cocker, Celine Dion, Etta James, k.d. lang, Shawn Colvin, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and George Michael.
According to The New York Times: "Mr. Telson has a remarkable talent for relating to musicians from diverse musical cultures and for writing stirring, dramatic music in non-Western European idioms." They also described his music as "a compendium of world music styles brilliantly reimagined, embellished and sometimes made to overlap by Mr. Telson, a classically trained American composer and multi-instrumentalist."