As with all of Newman's early albums, several of its songs had been previously recorded by other artists. In this case, "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" had been a UK hit for Alan Price in 1967, and "Dayton, Ohio - 1903" had been recorded by Harry Nilsson on his 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman and also by Billy J Kramer. Newman himself had also previously recorded "Last Night I Had A Dream" as a single, issued in September, 1968. The version heard on Sail Away is a re-recording with a notably different arrangement.
The song "Lonely at the Top" was written specifically with Frank Sinatra in mind, although he never recorded it.
Brian Wilson has said that this album profoundly affected him at the time of its release, briefly keeping him from sliding further into depression and mental illness. "Burn On," is heard over the opening credits of the 1989 movie Major League.