In just a few weeks, Taylor Swift is bringing a staggering pop production to Tampa for three sold-out nights at Raymond James Stadium, the likes of which few musicians can pull off.
But this isn’t the first time Tay-Tay has brought the biggest pop concert tour in the world to her fans in Tampa Bay.
The area was a haven for a rising teen singer who wowed a small crowd at the old St. Pete Pier and lit up the stage at the Strawberry Festival in Plant City. Swift, now 33, later brought stunning productions to Tampa that made headlines worldwide, from the time she trotted out guest star Idina Menzel dressed in a full Queen Elsa getup to what became a pivotal moment in the Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” when she addressed her sexual assault trial and found her voice in the political arena.
Step back with us and relive some of Taylor’s greatest hits in Tampa Bay.
2006: An unknown at the St. Pete Pier
Jim Everson isn’t entirely sure why he asked for a photo with the tall, blond singer from Nashville, he told Times staff writer Jay Cridlin in 2016. Few knew her in 2006. Yet something told Everson to snap a photo with the curly-haired 16-year-old inside St. Petersburg’s since-demolished Pier. It’s a rare image from the long-forgotten Tampa Bay debut of Taylor Swift.
It was the Fourth of July, and St. Petersburg had partnered with radio conglomerate Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia). Swift had just released her first single, “Tim McGraw,” which then sat at No. 60 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Swift was the second-billed act, behind country singer Jeff Bates.
She was accompanied by a fiddler and a guitarist. Set lists from that era contain only a few songs, including “Our Song” and “Permanent Marker,” according to Cridlin’s reporting.
After the gig, those in attendance said she talked to everyone who wanted to meet her and signed as much stuff as they asked.
“She was super nice,” Everson said. “She was just talking to me. I was sitting down. I talked to her mom and dad. I wasn’t in there very long. ... Now I look back and I’m like, Oh my god, look at her now!”
2009: Unexpected superstar at Strawberry Festival
In November 2008, Joe Newsome, the head of the entertainment committee at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, gulped hard at the high asking price of a rising country star named Taylor Swift.
“We paid her more money than anybody, and we were nervous,” Newsome recalled. “And then her rise was astronomical.”
Strawberry Fest concerts usually include a who’s who of country music artists, from old-school favorites like the Oak Ridge Boys to country veterans Reba McEntire and Travis Tritt to whoever is the country music flavor of the moment. That year’s choice was 19-year-old Swift and Kellie Pickler from “American Idol.” Tickets to Swift’s show sold out faster than any other concert in Strawberry Festival history at the time.
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Between her November signing and her March 2009 show in Plant City, Taylor Swift exploded onto the pop culture scene. She sang “Fifteen” in a duet with Miley Cyrus at the Grammys, was the musical guest in January on “Saturday Night Live“ and landed on the cover of Rolling Stone. Her album “Fearless” was No. 1 on the Billboard charts. She won Video of the Year at the CMT Awards the week before her sold-out show on March 1 in the tiny strawberry town, where the grandstands held 4,000 seats.
She opened the show wearing a T-shirt and jeans, singing the lament “You Belong With Me.” But once the song ended she tore away her street clothes to reveal a gold lame cocktail dress, “a touch of flash that befits this girl-pop Elvis who can top both the pop and country worlds,” the Lakeland Ledger reported at the time.
Newsome remembers being impressed by her family and the fun they had celebrating her brother’s 17th birthday backstage at the festival, when Taylor gave him a bicycle and later pelted him with Silly String.
“She has the nicest family,” Newsome said. “They had a birthday party for her brother and backstage it was like she was one of us.”
2010: First tour begins in Tampa
“In the very first show of her very first headlining tour of the United States, pop princess Taylor Swift could have honked a tuba with her left nostril for two hours,” Times music critic Sean Daly wrote in March 2010, “and the sold-out crowd of teen girls still would have shrieked and swooned as if the St. Pete Times Forum were handing out free unicorns at the door.”
She was touring behind sophomore album “Fearless,” which spent more time at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart than any other album in the 21st century at the time. The appreciative audience would be greeted with “You Belong With Me” as cheerleaders pranced and Taylor sported a nerdy band-geek outfit before dropping it for a frisky silver dress.
After “Our Song,” she finally greeted the sold-out crowd of 15,432: “Welcome to the first night of the Fearless Tour 2010,” she said. And then, after a perfectly timed beat, she added, “I’m Taylor.”
2011: Taking her throne
Hailed as that year’s queen of the country music world, Taylor Swift won the prestigious CMA Entertainer of the Year Award in November 2011. A week later she celebrated with a sold-out concert at the St. Pete Times Forum (now Amalie Arena) in Tampa in front of more than 15,400 fans.
For her Speak Now tour, fans both young and old “busted into tears when she first appeared on stage, wearing a gold flapper dress and singing ‘Sparks Fly’ (as, of course, real sparks flew),” Daly wrote in his review that year.
2013: The Red tour
Fans lined up at the venue in bright red lipstick, tiny dazzling top hats, tights and Taylor Swift sneakers for her Red Tour 2013 with British pop singer Ed Sheeran as the opener. The sold-out crowd at the recently renamed Tampa Bay Times Forum held 16,134 squealing fans who screamed their way through 17 songs.
Swift traveled with 24 trucks of stage and lighting gear plus 15 buses of personnel, about twice what Bon Jovi needed for its massive show that year. The stage was loaded with pyro and hydraulic trickery, including a T-shaped runway extension that allowed fans to get close, plus a “flying” platform that soared over the audience.
2015: Let it go
Moving up from arenas to Raymond James Stadium for the first time, Taylor Swift performed to a sold-out crowd of 55,000 on Halloween night in 2015.
Swift’s Halloween costume — Olaf from “Frozen” — was a clue to her surprise guest: Idina Menzel dressed as Queen Elsa, who performed “Let It Go” with her as a show-stopping duet. It was the final U.S. concert of her blockbuster 1989 World Tour, and Swift gave Tampa a Halloween party to remember, with countless costume changes, rotating catwalks, a galaxy of flashing wristbands that lit up the entire stadium and one of her best surprise guests of the entire tour.
“There’s just something captivating about how Swift, somehow still only 25, has evolved over the past decade, and especially during this summer march across North America,” Times pop music and culture critic Jay Cridlin wrote at the time. “That incredulous is-this-really-happening? gape has become an I-actually-made-this-happen gaze of triumph.”
2018: Finding her voice
The pop superstar’s Reputation tour arrived in August 2018 with promises to be her most theatrical with outlandish set pieces transforming the field at Raymond James Stadium.
The build-up was so great, Times news design director Tara McCarty revealed her three-year study in which she analyzed 99 of Swift’s songs with an in-depth look at her words, and a search for answers about the notoriously private singer. Swift liked what she read, and invited McCarty to meet her backstage in Tampa.
The show delivered a sparkling explosion of snakes and sequins and shrieky sing-alongs, with Swifties draped in flags and homemade shirts and skirts inscribed with her lyrics and photos of her cats.
And then the Tampa show delivered what would end up as a pivotal moment in the Netflix documentary “Miss Americana.” Swift put aside fears of being political to stand up for what she thinks is right.
“This exact day a year ago, I was not playing a sold-out stadium in Tampa,” Swift told the crowd of more than 50,000 that night, her voice cracking. “I was in a courtroom in Denver, Colorado. And honestly, I was there for a sexual assault case. This day a year ago was the day that the jury sided in my favor and said that they believed me.”
Less than two months after the Tampa show, Swift got political for the first time in her career, taking to Instagram to endorse Democrat Phil Bredesen over Republican Marsha Blackburn in the Tennessee Senate race.
Viewed through the prism of the “Miss Americana” film, that night in Tampa represents a real turning point in Swift’s life and career — a moment when she decided it was OK to speak up and even take a stance that could alienate longtime fans.