Robert Eria Telson was born in Cannes, France, in 1949. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, son of Paula (née Blackman) and David Telson. He began studying piano when he was five years old. By nine had already performed a Mozart piece 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 the teacher Nadia Boulanger. He followed this with a degree in music from Harvard University in 1970. Telson also played organ and composed original songs for a rock band called The Bristols while he was a high school student at Poly Prep in Brooklyn, New York. Several of these were recorded at Decca Studios but never released. At Harvard, he formed another group called Groundspeed, which brought him back to the Decca Studios in 1967 to record a demo recording of his songs "L-12 East" and "In a Dream" with producer Dick Jacobs. This was released by the label in 1968. After the demise of Groundspeed, Telson formed the band Revolutionary Music Collective, which included then-unknown singer Bonnie Raitt on lead vocals.
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, Wynton Marsalis, k.d. lang, Shawn Colvin, Caetano Veloso
, Gal Costa, Etta James, Jeff Buckley, 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".