Thanks to COVID-19, the Grammy Awards have been pushed back this year from their usual February slot to March 14. Unfortunately, three of the five nominees profiled in the books reviewed below will not be around to see the results. Singer-songwriter John Prine died last April and Leonard Cohen and Nat Cole are up for awards for posthumously released albums. These stories are worth reading regardless. (Nomination categories noted in parentheses at end of entries.)

Your guide to the 2021 Grammy Awards

“Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole” by Will Friedwald (Oxford University Press). A recognized authority on American song, Friedwald engages his subject with the gusto of a fan and the chops of a scholar, illuminating Cole as not just a svelte, cool crooner, but a stunning polymath who excelled as a jazz pianist, pop and jazz vocalist, songwriter, arranger, band leader and consummate businessman. From “Sweet Lorraine,” “Nature Boy” and “Mona Lisa” to “Unforgettable,” “Ramblin’ Rose” and “The Christmas Song,” Cole charted 150 hits in his 27-year career. Friedwald tracks them all, filling in the back story with such animated detail that his book reads like a primer on the business of vocal music, while whetting the reader’s appetite for the music. Friedwald also shows Cole’s uncanny knack for reading the pop market. Apparently a workaholic who never tired of planning his next innovative project — not the relaxed, come-what-may fella he projected on camera — Cole nevertheless seems to have been almost universally liked, though Friedwald does not dwell much on personality, preferring to document the career. A fine read for music buffs. (Cole’s “Hittin’ the Ramp” is nominated for best historical album.)

“Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter,” edited by Veronica Chambers (St. Martin’s Press). This breathless Festschrift celebrating the most dazzling pop polymath of the present era repeats the word “icon” or “iconic” 38 times in 21 essays, by writers who often talk about themselves more than their subject and who are incensed that Beyoncé has never won a Grammy for record or song of the year (2021 may change that). Despite relentless hyperbole, the collection does have the merit of being voiced by many women of color, who take on issues of cultural identity with both vernacular glee and critical studies granularity. Highlights include Meredith Broussard’s amusing statistical analysis of word cloud searches about the singer; Mari Britto’s unpacking of multicultural iconography; Treva Lindsey’s deconstruction of hip-hop hubby Jay-Z; and a touching mama-daughter tale by Caroline Clarke, who coincidentally is the granddaughter of Nat Cole. (Beyoncé’s “Black Parade” earned a slew of nominations, including for record of the year and song of the year; Beyoncé earned nine total nods this year.)

“Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years” by Michael Posner (Simon & Schuster). Leonard Cohen completists rejoice! Here are nearly 500 pages of chronological “oral biography” — a sort of print version of a “talking heads” TV documentary — gathered from pretty much anyone who ever had anything to do with the brilliant Canadian singer-songwriter, including Marianne Ihlen (of the song “So Long, Marianne”) and Cohen’s insightful lifetime friend, Barrie Wexler. The first of a projected three-volume set (yes, really), the book takes us from Cohen’s privileged Montreal childhood to his first years of rock stardom in the late 1960s. The vignette about Joni Mitchell staying overnight in the Cohen family home and Cohen’s roots as a leftie summer camp folk singer are delightful. In the end, a three-dimensional image of Cohen as a sexually magnetic, manipulative dreamer emerges. (Cohen’s “Thanks for the Dance” is nominated for best folk album.)

John Prine: In Spite of Himself,” by Eddie Huffman (University of Texas Press). Though first-time author Huffman never interviewed his subject, he paints a convincing picture of the wry, gravel-voiced Chicago storyteller who gave us such classics as “Angel From Montgomery” and “Sam Stone.” Huffman knows his music. He can tell you what “Travis picking” is and why a flat seventh chord is haunting. He also pinpoints the mix of rural and urban elements in Prine’s working class background that allowed him to write a hip ’60s anthem like “Illegal Smile” but also “Paradise,” a countrified homage to his father’s Kentucky home. Though the book ultimately falls into the music bio trap of studio personnel/album review/tour reception descriptions, this is a sweet little book. (Prine’s “I Remember Everything” is up for three awards, including best American roots performance and best American roots song.)

“I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era” by Greg Kot (Scribner). Chicago’s Staple Singers were a family band with homemade vocal harmonies and a uniquely cloudy electric guitar sound. The group started out in 1948 singing two-beat gospel for churchgoers and eventually became a prolific and original exponent of popular soul music, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 for such hits as “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” Kot’s book tracks the group’s life and career with workmanlike affection. Chock-full of details about Stax Records and Muscle Shoals recording sessions and neighborhood barbecues with the likes of Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson, this is an inside story of African American life that fans of American popular music will love learning about. (Staples is nominated, with Norah Jones, for best American roots performance for “I’ll Be Gone.”)