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  1. Music

That time a little-known Taylor Swift played the St. Pete Pier in 2006

Jim Everson isn't entirely sure why he asked for a photo with the tall, blond singer from Nashville.

"To be honest with you, I didn't even really know who she was at that time," he said. "I got pictures with a bunch of different people, and I just wanted to get a picture with her. I never knew she was going to be this freaking big."

No one did, not in 2006. Yet the photo exists, showing Everson inside St. Petersburg's since-demolished Pier, arm around the curly-haired 16-year-old. It's a rare image from a long-forgotten moment in local music history: the Tampa Bay debut of Taylor Swift.

With the world's biggest pop star about to play her 11th bay area concert Tuesday, in front of 50,000 fans at Raymond James Stadium, it's a good time to look back at her first, a debut so inauspicious that many in the crowd likely don't remember they were there.

It was the Fourth of July, and St. Petersburg had partnered with radio conglomerate Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) to line up a day of free entertainment along the downtown waterfront, including a western-facing stage on the Pier. Past performers had included Ashlee Simpson and Aaron Carter, but the bulk of the 2006 lineup wasn't that famous.

But there was one artist that Clear Channel's Travis Daily wanted to introduce to the market. He'd seen her perform at 13 during a previous job in Colorado and was friends with Scott Borchetta, the record executive who had signed her.

"We'd gone to a race together," said Daily, now the program director for WQYK-FM 99.5. "(Borchetta) said, 'I've signed this new artist, Taylor Swift. It's a different signing than what Nashville has ever been used to, but I think you're going to be blown away once you see it.' I mentioned our event and said, 'Look, maybe we can help you get in front of some people.' "

Swift had just released her first single, Tim McGraw, which then sat at No. 60 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, and had been making the rounds to promote it at radio stations around the country, a common practice among young country acts.

"Taylor had come into town a couple of times prior to that show in a rental car with her mom and the record rep," said former WFUS-FM 103.5 DJ Paul Koffy. "I ended up buying them lunch or dinner twice."

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For the Fourth of July show, Clear Channel picked her family up in a limo. They stayed at the Vinoy Renaissance hotel and went to the beach in their downtime. At the Pier, Swift ate pizza and did an interview with WFUS. Former American Idol finalist Melissa McGhee, who also sang that day, remembers her being "very meek, quiet and to herself. She was sitting in her little sundress in the corner practicing on her guitar."

But despite being barely old enough to drive, Swift was no wide-eyed naif.

"She was absolutely charming, completely disarming, and you realize, yeah, she's a kid, but she spoke like a master," said then-WFUS personality Skip Mahaffey. "She spoke like somebody who had been in this business for decades."

She was the second-billed act, behind country singer Jeff Bates, but played just a short set, accompanied by a fiddler and a guitarist. Set lists from that era list only a few songs, including Our Song, I'd Lie and Permanent Marker. The way Mahaffey remembers it, only a few dozen fans were scattered around the "ungodly hot" stage.

"They set her up literally out at the end of the Pier, and it was our feeling that, 'Who's going to want to walk all the way out there to see this girl?' " he said.

But those who knew her as a teenager say that even then, Swift, now 28, was a natural entertainer.

"I could tell even with her little acoustic set she was doing, her 20 minutes, she had a knack for knowing how to handle a crowd and how to entertain people," said Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, who took Swift on tour in 2008. "That's something you can't teach. Somebody can be extraordinarily gifted as a musician and a songwriter, but you can't teach people how to entertain."

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After the gig, "although there were only a couple hundred people there," Daily said, "she talked to every single one that wanted to meet her and signed as much stuff as they wanted and couldn't have been nicer."

Everson — whose wife, Carol, was the Pier's general manager — was one of the few people who sort of knew Swift. He'd heard Tim McGraw on the radio, and when she played it live, the connection clicked in his brain. He'd met a few celebrities at Pier events over the years, including Kiss' Gene Simmons, and asked his wife if he could go back and say hi to Swift, too. There in the Pier's Dockside Activity Room, next to the food court, they made small talk about Tim McGraw.

"She was super nice," he 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. I was only in there five or 10 minutes Now I look back and I'm like, Oh my god, look at her now!"

Swift's ascent is the reason anyone who was there remembers her Pier performance. The concert is not mentioned anywhere online, aside from deeply archived Times listings.

No photos have surfaced of the actual performance. It predated the iPhone and Twitter, and the Pier's official photographer that day, Tim Boyles, was elsewhere at the time Swift went on. (Swift later hired Boyles through Getty Images to shoot her 2015 concert at Raymond James Stadium; his photos of her and surprise guest Idina Menzel dressed as Frozen's Olaf and Elsa appeared in publications around the world.)

This makes Everson's photo of Swift at the Pier all the more unique. Two years later, when Swift headlined the then-Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, he took his daughter to the show and took the photo with him.

"After the show, people were going up into the trailer to get an autograph, and I had the picture with me but was like, Nah, I don't feel like waiting around," he said. "I would have loved to get her to sign it."

Mahaffey has something even better. A few days after the July 4 performance, he got a handwritten note from Swift that he keeps in his office.

"It was so great meeting you, and I just wanted to say thank you for being so nice to me!" she wrote. "I really appreciate that I had so much fun with you guys in Tampa, and was treated so well. Thanks for everything, let me know if you ever need anything! Thanks!"

"Obviously, you don't know how somebody like that is going to blow up," Mahaffey said. "But you already knew that there was something pretty special about that girl."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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